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PBS Pledge Drives Worse Than a Bad Habit
December 5, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 64 comments

As a former smoker, I can tell you that what once was acceptable, then shown to be a tar-and-nicotine-paved path to no good, is a tough and awful habit to break.

The people who run PBS are similarly addicted to an awful habit. Trouble is, no one to date has convinced them they should stop. That addiction is to the once-acceptable, now detestably unhealthy way the network's stations raise money several times a year. We're in what they call a "pledge period" now, as any usually devoted PBS fan can tell you, and it smells worse than an overflowing ashtray.

Let's start with the bait-and-switch issue. There are programs perennially shown during these trips into bad ideas that one would never think of seeing during any ordinary time watching a PBS affiliate. There are self-help, lose-weight, make-money learn-to-play-a-piano programs one might expect to see late at night on a Fox affiliate that has even less to show after midnight than it has before. (21 Days to a Slimmer Younger You with Dr. Kellyann, top, left.)

One doesn't expect to see this kind of programming on a network otherwise known for high quality. Most of those who love regular PBS programming are appalled by these programs and their deviation from the norm. As a result, loyal fans are lost, at least temporarily. And the people who are attracted to these misfits may cough up some money, but they may not be pleased when the drive is over and Suze heads south for another couple of months to be replaced by science shows, Brit dramas and how-to shows -- all of which inhabit a plateau totally dissimilar to shows that have the words "wheat belly" in the title.
Then there are the pleasant special shows, usually performance-oriented, that should last an hour but usually take twice as long. (Steve Martin and Edie Brickell in a Great Performances pledge special, left.) Why? Because the allegedly brilliant minds that are responsible for shows like "Nova" and "American Masters" think punctuating a good program with endless pleading for money makes sense. Compare it to buying a car. You go into a showroom and either like what you see and think it's worth the cost or you don't. A sales person may try to browbeat you into capitulation. He may disappear for inordinate amounts of time to check a fact with a manager, and may forget to return your keys that they borrowed to appraise your car. But they don't want to give up. Such tactics might work on the dimwit characters of endless failed sitcoms, but they are insulting to the typical fan of the normal PBS quality level. It's an insult thrown regularly throughout each broadcast year at people who have proven their loyalty.
These and other tasteless tactics of PBS pledge drives are as out-of-place and gauchely mistaken as a platter of White Castles on a Downton Abbey banquet table. That these judgment errors continue unchanged and unchallenged isn't easily forgiven. Public radio stations with which I'm familiar don't rely on stunts and bad manners to receive support. So why is the larger sibling so clueless? 

Going back to the top of this rant, there once was a time when smokers were welcomed almost everywhere and no one thought of challenging such negative behavior. Today the smokers who persist not only are not welcomed, they are treated as the worst and most undesirable of creatures by many. 

Please, PBS, clean up your act, break the habit and treat your fans with the respect they deserve. Because right now you stink.

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Apr 27, 2022   |  Reply
Chip Kotzmann
By replacing high quality programming with the lowest of the low fare during pledge periods they are showing a disrespect for their audiences. I used to give generously at year end every year, but now rarely give due to the maddening number and abysmal quality of pledge periods. They could easily dredge up highly acclaimed programs from the past to replay during pledge weeks as special presentations, instead of chintzy financial advisors, "medical experts" and antiquated music specials replayed over and over and over. Whoever is in charge of programming should be sent to the informercial stations.
Aug 19, 2021   |  Reply
Collece Kull
Curious as to your rational for the irritating length of the pledge drive breaks.
I guess that most people do what I do either mute or record and delete commercial breaks. I’ve been a devoted PBS Viewer for at least 50 years and committed sustaining member. Please consider this a constructive criticism and give it some sensible consideration.
Thank you, Collece Kull
May 31, 2021   |  Reply
Michael Gannon
KQED has turned into the most aggravating waste of what SHOULD be a time to relax and refresh. Your programming over the last few months has sincerely made me want to smash my TV into pieces. You are the worst...STOP THE BEGGING or at the very least destroy all of the crummy commercials programs you use over again ad nauseum. Between you and nothing at all I think that
nothing is a better choice...Goodbye and good luck you panhandlers.
Sep 4, 2020   |  Reply
Frederick stocker
Sep 2, 2020   |  Reply
Ann Burkholz
Our local PBS station MPTV Milwaukee is supposedly the most watched public TV station in the country. The current head came from CA after supposedly increasing their viewship with lots of "local" programming. So now we have all that, which is not particularly interesting to me. But they still fill the air with "Lawerence Welk" and other ancient shows that no one in their right mind watches.

And every 6-8 weeks, we are treated to the "fundraiser." It's not just a couple times a year, it's every other month. Which I question since a couple years back, this station manager sold a couple of their bandwiths for $ 90 million. Where did all the money go? Why are they constantly begging? I dropped my membership of many years since this is so aggravating to me.
Aug 30, 2020   |  Reply
John Paul Parks
Now, now, Lawrence Welk is one of my favorite shows. I think it is terrible that they interrupt it with pledge drives though.
Oct 1, 2020
Belle Mitchell
I didn't think I was the only one who felt this way, but this is the first time I've seen it voiced. Thank-You!
Jun 13, 2020   |  Reply
Jimbo Dubya
I understand fundraising, but why so often and so long? Now that Dems control the House again, it seems like Fed funding wouldn't be as much danger as when the Repub ax wielders are in charge. But that is no longer my main gripe with PBS. What I've come to find even more distasteful about them (and the BBC who provides their major prime time content) is the constant PC preaching. You can't just watch to be entertained anymore without getting some social justice message wrapped inside. Messages of female empowerment and racial equality come neatly woven into the plot of every period drama even when we know people in those bygone eras were not preoccupied with such things. It's just all so much BS.
Jun 11, 2020   |  Reply
Ruth Slivken
Thank g-d someone said it out loud!! I cannot stand the Pledge Drive programming; as you described it so perfectly!! Surely such creative minds can think of some other way to get our pledges?? As it returns time after unbearable time, I get angrier and angrier. Why must I, a loyal supporter, be subjected to this ad nauseum time and time again??
Mar 12, 2020   |  Reply
Oh, yes. In a world of inflation where everything gets increasingly more expensive stations do not see an increase in their budget accordingly. In fact, many Stations rely on viewer contributions and underwriting for about half of their budget. Giving has gone downhill for years therefore the station has less funds to work with to purchase programming who's costs are increasing. Those BBC dramas on Sunday nights that you love? We may not be able to afford to give you a different one during the week. There are a number of programs that we can acquire freely because of the dues we pay to be a PBS station or basic memberships is programming services, but most of the best programming is syndicated and carries with it a hefty price tag.
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
To sum it up. As a PBS Station's Program Manager I want to air what my viewers want to watch. The best way for me to do that is to hear from them. Nielsen reports are very (VERY) expensive and in a rural area like mine not very accurate because of such a small sampling of the population so we don't subscribe to them. We know the obvious hit programs, but we can't air Downton Abbey, Ken Burns and America's Test Kitchen 24/7. Tell us what you want to see. Sometimes we can accommodate, sometimes we can't, but we'll try. You won't find a Program or Station Manager out there who doesn't want to hear from you.
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
3rd - the old men in black suits pitching to you may very well be the same person that started working at the station during the first few years of its existence and all of his friends started watching at the same time. What he chooses to air is going to be what he hears the most about, which is what his friends talk to him about. I'll hit this point again - the Program Manager needs to hear from you! PBS is very different from commercial television where everything is measured to the smallest detail because there's money at stake. Our standard programming is based on viewer feedback, not which program will turn the biggest budget (with the exception of those pledge programs I already talked about, but our choices are limited there). So, if you're tired of Lawrence Welk, want to see Masterpiece repeated during the week, or don't think your favorite outdoor program should air saturday afternoon when you want to be outdoors then contact your station.
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
2nd - our viewership is older than most. We'd love to change that. Programmers try different things to change it. We're slower than many broadcasters to get into Streaming and On-Demand, but we're getting there now. Along with that we hope to air more programming to appeal to a younger audience but those audiences are shrinking across the board. TV isn't watched as much as it used to be and there's more options than there used to be.
As a very small station with a small budget I'm trying new things to get relevant local content to our viewers. Our town has a Film Festival I went to last year and approached the film makers. I was able to gain about 40 new titles I can air that, for the most part, have never been broadcast before. Station managers need to try new things. When our suppliers keep giving us the same content and our viewers want something different, or we want to appeal to a new audience we need to think outside the box.
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
As the Program Manager for a PBS station I feel I should comment but don't have enough room to do it justice
1st - each station is responsible for their own pledge programming. PBS Programmers have 4 main sources for pledge programs and there's a handful of new programs for each pledge drive, some better than others. And what we schedule is determined by what brings in the most pledge dollars - if your station airs 21 Days to a Slimmer Younger You a lot it means that kind of program still brings in lots of donations. I'm a new programmer, but our station is in a rural area with an older audience. The Lawrence Welk specials are always still in our top tier programs. It's not that I want to watch Lawrence Welk, it's that it's what our viewers want.
If you don't like what your station is offering, call, email or better yet leave feedback on a Facebook page for your station where it might get comments from other viewers. But, the take away - the station Programmer needs to hear it.
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
I agree with everything in this article. The new age gurus, the old guy in the black suit telling me to buy his books so I can stay "young" like him, weight loss, etc. The Home Shopping Network is more interesting! As for the performances they repeat them over and over to the point where I start to hate the artists. Somehow they think that the entire PBS demographic is people who grew up listening to Motown or Yanni. Who among us isn't going to change the channel! And now they are providing premium access to programs via Passport. Great. So low income people actually have less access to information and entertainment than people with disposable income. What would Mister Rogers think? Maybe they think low income people should get a second job to they can access "premium" features of "public" TV. The situation makes my stomach turn. PBS management has lost touch with the "public" they used to serve. I'm not giving another dime until PBS wakes up! Spread the word!
Mar 9, 2020   |  Reply
Well, said, Arial
Mar 21, 2020
I have been a sustaining member of our local pbs station for many years. The almost constant fund raising has almost convinced me to cancel my membership. Fund drives not only are more frequent, they last longer and most of the programming is old and boring.
Mar 8, 2020   |  Reply
I believe we have had three since January. All my favorites that I record are bumped. I am sue I never see a complete series. Suse Orman needs to go away.
May 2, 2020
Echo Gwynn
I buy dvd sets...
but now they are showing less and less new shows that I enjoy. It used to be every night there were two good series to watch... now nothing but two nights...

I am really sad, but at least it weans me off more of the little tv I watch (usually only pbs. cannot stand reality tv and idiot sitcoms.)
Mar 5, 2020   |  Reply
Kathy Moon
Ok, membership drives I understand, but why does it have to be so repetitive. How many times do you need to repeat the same information. It is very disappointing coming from such a respected public station.
Mar 4, 2020   |  Reply
Michael Hall
Good to see others who feel the same way!
Jan 1, 2020   |  Reply
Ramon Galvan
Thank you Tom for your excellent description of PBS' bad habits!
Hope OPB is paying atention!
Sep 11, 2019   |  Reply
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