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How One PBS Station Swore Off Pledging and Made More Money
December 17, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 11 comments

Imagine, if you will, a major U.S. city where, as in most cities, there is a public-television station. The station, like its counterparts across the country, is watched by a large number of people who turn to it for a high-quality schedule of arts, science, drama, how-to and other programs with loyal followings. But one thing is different at this station: It doesn't pull the plug on those fine shows several times a year and abandon those loyal viewers to wear beggar's clothes and plead for money endlessly for days, amid a barrage of programming of a different, often tacky, stripe.

Let your mind continue in this seeming fantasy for a moment longer. Not only do pledge drives -- as predictable in most cities as the return of buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio -- not bedevil the viewers of said station, but that station broadcasts without loss of income and without the normal churn of members common in the public-TV world.

It's a storyline even Rod Serling might have rejected as beyond fantasy. But it's true.

Earlier this month, I used this space to gripe about PBS station pledge drives. A number of TVWW readers agreed and added their comments about the oxymoronic situation of television's smartest network dumbing down several times a year to ask for money. One of those who commented, a Marg M, told how in Syracuse, N.Y., where she lives, the public TV station had given up pledge drives and hasn't relapsed. It was a claim that begged scrutiny. If it were true, why do the rest of us continue to have to suffer through PBS' many Mr. Hyde periods?

Marg speaks the truth. Robert J. Daino (top) became president and CEO of WCNY public radio and television stations in 2005. The day he took the job, he promised the stations' faithful that he would end all pledge drives within two years. He kept his promise. Since 2007, the blight of PBS pledge programming has not afflicted the Syracuse airwaves. Gone are most of the stunt programs that mark these drives. Gone are the overlong begging sessions that punctuate these programs, when the masters of interruption all but turn blue from pleading before finally returning viewers to the program to which they had tuned in.

Pledge programs that meet the normally high public-TV standards do make the air after, as Daino said, "we manually rip out all the pledge breaks." It's a change of course that each year has added more than 300 hours "of additional content now that couldn't have been possible if we were pledging," Daino said in a recent interview.

Money raised during pledge drives is a traditional PBS revenue stream, he explained, but isn't the only one that works. He has come up with much more than a complimentary tote bag full of alternatives. One of the simplest was the use of what he calls "snipes," the superimposed messages that appear during programming on all networks. The commercial networks, he said, have conditioned viewers to accept those prompts to promote other shows. Taking the technique in a different direction, WCNY's snipes (Antiques Roadshow, right) remind viewers the program could have been interrupted at the point they appear to ask for money. The brief message ends with a "Thank you."

To him, his viewers are the station's shareholders, "and it seemed foreign to me to go to our shareholders and keep banging on them for more funds." When someone pledges during a program in order to receive a premium such as a book or a CD, they are "transactional members," Daino said. Traditionally, stations spend a large amount of time "trying to replenish transactional members" who often never return.  His station has a member renewal rate of more than 80 percent, he said; he believes other station's rate of member retention is "much lower than where we are."

PBS does not collect data about its stations' member retention averages, a network spokesperson said, explaining such information wouldn't accurately reflect a station's economic health because different factors make up each PBS affiliate:

"The rate of renewal among our stations varies greatly, which is due to in large part to the fact that our stations are very different from one another. They are large, small, urban and rural. Some are part of state-wide or university systems, others stand alone or are licensed to a local school system. Nearly half of public television stations also operate a public radio station. Many are located in 'overlap' markets where viewers have access to more than one PBS station."

Even so, PBS applauds the Syracuse station's relationship with its viewers.

"Robert and the entire team at WCNY are doing outstanding work," she said. "Any station or other non-profit would be justifiably proud of retaining 80 percent of its annual donors."

The iffy business of trolling for members produces soft money, Daino said, and that was something he no longer wanted to count on. He worked for General Electric and owned two software companies before he came to public television. He said he applied for-profit business techniques to the stations in order to open up other funding source. One was to buy an established production company "with a significant customer base" that brought money to the station when it continued to do commercial work, and also was able to produce programming for the nonprofit WCNY.

Station shareholders benefited from other innovations: WCNY built a 57,000-square-foot production facility "in the middle of the ninth-poorest community . . . in the country" that brought in "tens of millions of dollars of redevelopment" investment in that area. The station lead an effort that brought together nine New York PBS stations in operating a master programming control center for multiple stations, removing redundant responsibilities and cutting overhead. Stations using the Centralcast service pay a service fee, which is another revenue source. It has grown to the point, Daino said, where "25 percent of the U.S PBS viewing audience is getting a signal from us.

Another new business endeavor Daino cited was a cooperative effort with New York schools called Enterprise America in which middle-school students receiving mandatory business training use 10,000 square feet of special facilities the station has incorporated into its building that help the students "learn how to run businesses in an entrepreneurial fashion." WCNY franchises the concept to public stations in other states.

These are some of the alternatives the Syracuse stations have chosen over the tradition that goes back to the early days of non-commercial stations, that of periodically disrupting a usually good schedule to ask, for days on end, for money. The landscape has changed, as well as viewer makeup and expectations, Daino argues, and public television has to change with it.

"What's worked for the last 40 or 50 years is not going to work now," he said. "It has to be changed. The longer you wait, the worse it's going to be."

But, Daino said, despite his station's success after abandoning the pledge-period model eight years ago, WCNY is the only PBS station in the country doing it.

I wonder if pledge staple on financial matters Suze Orman could explain that?


PBS Is Studying Ways to Improve Pledge Drives
PBS administration was asked about pledge drives and their viability. The response, through a network spokesperson, shows PBS is seriously looking at ways it may redesign the ways it looks for financial support in the future. Here is the response:
On-air membership drives (or on-air pledge) is an important topic in our system. It’s one of the most visible methods of fundraising stations have. Individual membership remains the largest source of funding for stations across the country. Pledge has kept local stations on the air for more than 35 years. For some stations, pledge accounts for as much as half of their budget.
Ultimately, local PBS stations make their own decisions about the programs and breaks that they air during pledge, as well as the frequency with which they conduct their drives. PBS is working to drive new thinking and innovation in on-air membership appeals and ensure that the way stations use this platform is productive and fits with the service the station provides to the community overall.
Given the critical importance of both membership and what viewers see when they tune into their local station, PBS is currently one year into a three-year pilot project to provide assets and resources to stations to pledge the primetime schedule more often and to find innovations in leveraging all communications channels, especially digital, during campaigns.
As part of the pilot, PBS has created a full-week’s schedule of first-run programs from the primetime schedule, along with messaging and other tools that a core group of stations have agreed to use. This will allow a comparison of some basic pledge practices. We are tracking data on the pilot and will be sharing it with all member stations as the project progresses.
This initiative is a test, an attempt check the assumptions we have as a system about on-air fundraising – the programs, the messaging in the breaks, the donors we attract and their behavior over time. The purpose is to develop up-to-date, research-based insights about effective on-air fundraising practices and to ensure that PBS stations nationwide have the best set of tools and resources to generate maximum net revenue and member growth in an evolving media environment.
Our two most important goals at PBS are to serve our members stations and provide an outstanding viewing experience. Just as the media landscape and audience expectations have changed over time, pledge must evolve as well. We are committed to working with our stations to provide them the best possible tools to engage with their viewers.

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Envision a unique public television station in a major U.S. city, maintaining a consistent schedule of high-quality arts, science, drama, and how-to programs. Unlike counterparts, it doesn't interrupt beloved shows for prolonged fundraising events, ensuring viewers enjoy uninterrupted content without the need for constant appeals. A refreshing approach in broadcasting.
Feb 2, 2024   |  Reply
Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking.
Sep 15, 2023   |  Reply
Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking.
Sep 15, 2023   |  Reply
Elizabeth Kaffitz
There has to be a better way to fund our local PBS stations than removing the very programs we watch PBS to see! How counter-intuitive can you get? I love our Buffalo WNED. It brings me outstanding programs like "Call the Midwife", Thursday and Saturday night mysteries like "Cranchester" and "The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries", and the in-depth reporting of its unparalleled newscasts. But I hate pledge drives. Even if the programming is good, the begging breaks detract from our viewing pleasure. Right now it seems as if our normal programming will never return.
Mar 18, 2018   |  Reply
Rod Serling was born in Syracuse to boot. He grew up two counties away.
24 still has TravelAuc and TelAuc every year but those were already around before this groundbreaking move. Pledge breaks have been parodied on The Simpsons and Family Ties if not Family Guy.
Mar 25, 2017   |  Reply
Pam SR
I checked the WCNY website and it shows they do TeleAuctions on the air several times a year as a fundraiser. Do you or viewers consider that different and better than the pledge programs?
May 31, 2016   |  Reply
David Norman
It is so sad that PBS stations do not even know if the dribble they crowd our screens with actually enhances contributions. In my case, I make the point by diminishing my contribution each year to KQED each year, with the pledge that I will double it if they change their ways. If more of us spoke with our check books, they would alter the approach very quickly. They have simply developed very poor uninformed habits.
Dec 20, 2015   |  Reply
Part of the reason for the "crack cocaine" approach to fundraising is the high cost of executive salaries at some of these organizations. I don't know how much Mr. Daino earns, but the CEO of my local PBS/NPR pubcaster pulls in three quarters of a million dollars a year ($750K). Some of the other senior people also pull in very generous salaries. And they not only have to pay very high program clearance fees, but they're paying off a building bought at the height of a real estate bubble. Hence the six times a year times three weeks at a time cycles of music clip shows, quack doctor programs and the same damn Suze Orman program shown dozens of times each cycle. The leadership of PBS needs to refresh their memory of what an Aegean Stable is and how to deal with it.
Dec 18, 2015   |  Reply
I despise the tacky and tasteless programming and infomercials that appear during the pledge drives. On the other hand a barrage of clutter on the screen when I do actually trying to watch something doesn't hold a lot of appeal either. Still, I'm glad that this method works for Syracuse. But I also assume that their fund raising needs are somewhat more modest than those stations such as WGBH, WNYC and KCET which produce the bulk of programming for PBS.
Dec 17, 2015   |  Reply
WNYC (AM & FM) are New York's public *radio* stations. (You're thinking of WNET/13.) And KCET is the *former* PBS outlet in Los Angeles, having dropped PBS a couple of years back because they were unwilling to take a huge hike in program fees. They now run other, non-PBS, programming from alternative sources such as the BBC and the Public Television Exchange (if I'm remembering their name right).
Dec 18, 2015
TJ Lubinsky,the guy who packages many of those music "clip" shows that stations use like crack cocaine,would be put out of business with this intelligent business model. Sure,an occasional stroll down memory lane may help to clear the mind for the next challenge,but staying stuck in (your favorite decade here) does little to the goal of non-commercial media to enlighten while possibly entertaining.
Dec 17, 2015   |  Reply
Sally W.
I really appreciate your post; it's good to know that there is one PBS station that has done away with pledges! I do question the effectiveness of Suze Orman, Jonathan Pond, etc., over the continuing airing of "Nova," "American Experience," etc. On the other hand, I did like seeing Josh Groban's appearance during the latest pledge on NYC's WNET Channel 13, so some elements of pledge aren't so bad to me; but I lost patience with the financial and health programming during pledge time, and as a PBS member, there's only so much I could donate...
Dec 17, 2015   |  Reply
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