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September 1, 2014

Do PBS pledge drives still work?

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 14th 2007 11:40AM
PBS logoLast night, I was watching Frontline, mainly as a way to avoid watching Idol, but also because it had part three of its four-part "News War" series. This episode focused on how alternate sources of news are causing newspapers to scramble to keep their readerships from dwindling too fast (let's just say there were lots of references to The Daily Show and Rocketboom). It was a pretty engaging report, interviewing almost every big name in the newspaper, television news, and online businesses.

My local PBS station, WNET, also knew that this was an engaging special, as they broke in at least 4 times during the 90-minute special to ask for money. And these pledge breaks lingered to the point where I switched away from them to see what else was on, only to come a few minutes after they went back to Frontline, which only got me more annoyed. I'm sure a lot of people get annoyed at these breaks; people have been making fun of them for as long as I can remember. Here's what I want to know: do those pledge breaks (or "begathons," as they used to be called) still work?

Sure, your local PBS station -- or PBS in general, if they're the ones running the pledge break, which I usually see during those endless parades of nostalgia doo-wop concerts -- gets money during these breaks. You've got to remember, the audience for PBS is still primarily people like my parents, who tune to one station and tend to leave it there until the show they're watching is over (though even my dad throws the "begathon" term around when he gets annoyed at the pledge breaks).

But whatever younger viewers PBS has or is trying to gain must be completely turned off by their station breaking their concentration to beg for money. Don't you think they'd rather just go to the station's web site and contribute the money there? I'm sure a crawl on the bottom of the screen or a one-minute break in the middle of the show would be more than enough to get dedicated PBS viewers to throw some cash their way.

The other thing I don't get is the pledge incentives each station offers. Yes, the classic tote bag is still available, I'd imagine, if you throw the station thirty bucks or something. But why do stations think that a DVD of the very show you're watching is something that will attract callers? It not only seems pointless -- I'm already watching it, maybe even recording it on my TiVo. Why would I want a DVD copy of it? -- but it makes the viewer feel like they're being cheated. WNET, for instance, was offering a DVD set of the entire "News War" series for a $250 pledge. A quick look at ShopPBS.org shows you that you can get the same DVD set for $24.95. Jeez.

You'd think if I was going to pledge that much money to the station, they'd give me something similar to what I could get from an eBay charity auction, like maybe having Charlie Rose record my outgoing voice mail message or something like that.

So what do you folks think? Are PBS begathons at all effective anymore? When was the last time you contributed money after being bombarded by 15 minutes of pleading in the middle of a show you were enjoying? Let me know in the comments.

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rmwithey

Being one that works for a non-profit radio I do have to say that we have to ask more because most of our donors do not commit longer than 6 months to give though they are told that their contribution is continuous until they tell us to stop. We have 3 million listeners and yet only 3% of those listeners actually give to support the ministry. I think that people are so used to tuning out the commercials that they really don't know the difference between commercial and non-commercial radio. And yet with satelite radio they pay a monthly service in order to get commercial free radio. At least this way (telethons and pledge drives) we at least ASK them to pay for the service they already are enjoying for free instead of forcing them to buy equipment and charge a monthly fee before they know if they like commercial free.

Personally, I listen to commercial stations as it's the only way that I get to know of local businesses that might suite my personal needs in the future. Now if there was a way that a commercial station could gear their commercials per listener sort of like Free411 does when they have advertisers that support the free directory but you only hear advertisements that pertain to the type of number you are trying to reach. INTERESTING THOUGHT!

March 28 2007 at 4:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Buckeye

I have had many of the same complaints you have regarding PBS pledge breaks, so I called my local station and found someone who would give me straight answers to my questions. What she told me surprised me, and I felt a bit sheepish after our conversation.

First, who responds to the pledge drives? Our parents, or more specifically the WWII generation. They understand the idea of paying for a service they use. Who doesn't get it? Us, the Boomers. We'd rather complain loudly and even publicly that our viewing is being interrupted by pledge drives. Why don't we complain about commercials interrupting our viewing? Because we've never known TV without commercials, even though 22% of every hour of commercial TV is given over to advertisers. How much broadcast time to pledge drives take? Not even 5%. Like the Doo-Wop groups, the WWII generation is dropping like flies, and PBS revenue is decreasing. This person admitted that PBS hasn't yet figured out how to motivate us Boomers.

In response to my complaint about the premiums, she suggested that I donate for the programming and don't get a premium (she suggested this very, very nicely). She also confessed that this "pledge for premium" deal is one that many in PBS regret initiating, because now their audience is trained that way, and even people who know they're going to pledge will wait for a premium they like. This means pledge drives take longer to collect all donors.

I asked the exact same question you did: "Don't you think they'd rather just go to the station's web site and contribute the money there?" Her response: "Please, feel free to do just that." How many of us do that? She said that less than 5% of most stations donations come in via their website. She asked me why that number isn't higher, since I suggested it. I had no answer, do you?

I also suggested the one minute crawl at the bottom of the screen ("I'm sure a crawl on the bottom of the screen or a one-minute break in the middle of the show would be more than enough to get dedicated PBS viewers to throw some cash their way"). She said that they do that, and it is NOT "more than enough." In fact, the bump in online donations when they do that is miniscule. The reality is that when they're not asking for donations on the air, we're not going online to donate. Again, she wondered why that was, but I don't really have an answer.

FWIW, while she sympathized with the pain of watching a pledge break, she said it doesn't really compare with the pain of DOING every break, days in a row, seeing every minute of each one, just so you can pay the bills to keep providing a service.

Yes, I've all but given up on the other 499 channels, and find myself watching PBS more and more and resenting the begathons when they come on. So what's the alternative? What's going to get us Boomers to pick up where our parents are leaving off? We haven't come up with any good ideas here. As soon as we do, I have someone I can call who wants to hear them.

As for the idea that my $5 or $10 a month donation will help the station pay its bills AND get Charlie Rose to record the message on my phone answering machine, I think it proves she's right, we have been well trained.

March 15 2007 at 4:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GhaleonQ

I won't go into it, but yes, yes, they work.

March 15 2007 at 2:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
erroneous_nick

Brent,

When our local PBS station quit showing Dr. Who and having all those oddly-dressed Whovians I quit pledging. I don't remember exactly when it was, but I'd guess 6+ years at least. I agree that the breaks should be shorter and more frequent instead of these marathon-like begging sessions. Viewers are used to commercial television length breaks, they usually go to the fridge or the bathroom. With PBS pledge breaks, you can go to the friggin' grand canyon and be back in time for the rest of the show.

March 14 2007 at 10:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bearman

Joel, I 100% agree with you. Pledge drives are too long and too often. Sure they work as someone mentioned but is it right anymore? I find myself switching off a PBS program simply because of the length of the breaks. If they were two minute pledge breaks like a commercial break every 15 minutes, I would stay on the channel. But after 5 minutes, they have lost me to another program.

And obviously educational programming is commercially viable, so I say get rid of the government subsidy/membership and go to a commercial base.

March 14 2007 at 8:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brent McKee

I don't have a problem with PBS pledge drives, but increasingly it seems like the programming during the pledge periods - at least on the PBS station that I have access to (WTVS Detroit) is what would be described on any other station as "infomercials" from self-help gurus and the like. I remember when pldege breaks featured new content and the best PBS had to offer (and Doctor Who Marathons with geeks from the local Doctor Who clubs answering the phones in costume).

March 14 2007 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
erroneous_nick

"Here's a thought. Quit voting for Republicans who have it out for the CPB and slash their budgets every year, or try to install political appointees who then attempt to eliminate the "liberal bias". "

And yet just yesterday some delusional liberal commenter swore up and down that I was wrong when I said liberals will politicize anything and go on the attack at any chance. Suck it up Editz and vote your choice, but you should realize that the old adage, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" still rings true. I'm not going to go on the attack, but I will answer your liberal venom.

March 14 2007 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Televinita

Well, I was watching a Loreena McKennitt concert last night, and the top-tier gift item was a pair of tickets to see her perform live, so...if I could afford to give money away like that, I would have considered that worthwhile. And the DVD isn't just a straight-up copy of what you see; it has some additional extras.

That, plus, what DixieChick said.

March 14 2007 at 5:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bryan Price

I just don't watch PBS when they do this. And it seems like they are doing it more and more often. And longer. I remember it being a week, and seems like it's already been going on over two weeks.

I thought that there had been a campaign to make the begging only go on once a year. Evidently that has lapsed.

I'm pissed over the fact that some stations were running Dr. Whos to get people to donate, which was successful, and then took Dr. Who off the air because they said it become too expensive. I must say that definitely turned me off from donating again to PBS.

March 14 2007 at 4:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Media Glutton

PBS is a gem. There should be an 24-hour all-news public broadcasting network to get rid of the Anna Nicole- and Britney-ridden cable news networks we have now. Who's with me!

March 14 2007 at 3:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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