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'Doo Wop' has PBS singing its praises

Sunday, August 06, 2000

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

T.J. Lubinsky cuddled with his first girlfriend in the back seat of a car parked in a secluded spot in Asbury Park, N.J. The night was dark. The mood was right. On the radio The Five Satins crooned "In the Still of the Night." She turned to him, their lips only a breath apart, and softly spoke.

"What are we listening to this corny stuff for?"

Lubinsky, still cherub-faced at 28, laughs as he tells the story. "So I know what it's like to hear that song for the first time," he says. "It happened 30 years later for me, but it still happened."

Lubinsky is the generationally displaced mastermind behind the highest-grossing pledge special in the history of public television. While the intellectuals at PBS central were scheduling British sitcom reruns and resting on $10 million worth of pledge-break laurels raised through four national broadcasts of "Les Miserables," a single showing of Lubinsky's WQED-hosted doo-wop music special raked in more than $17 million nationally in 1999.

"That's more than The Three Tenors," he says over his shoulder, rushing backstage between the control-room trailer parked outside and the lavish auditorium of the Benedum Center. "More than 'Les Miz.' More than John Tesh. More than Yanni."

Now, with the eager cooperation of the Public Broadcasting System, Lubinsky and WQED are trying to make the magic happen again with another pledge-week doo-wop special. The locally conceived and produced show is helping to change the way PBS targets its viewing audience.

Hurrying back to the trailer, Lubinsky is rushed, up to his doo-wah-ditty, in what he hopes will be a reprise of last year's landmark success. "Doo Wop 50" celebrated the 50th anniversary of the early rock vocal groups. With "Doo Wop 51," Lubinsky has better production facilities, more experienced personnel and a bigger cast, including nearly 30 oldies groups from The Coasters to The Crystals, some of whom haven't worked together since before Lubinsky was born.

Those lush harmonies are in his genes, he says. Lubinsky's grandfather founded Savoy Records, and his father helped to cultivate many of the label's doo-wop hits.

"I grew up with stories of my father going to rock 'n' roll shows," he says, climbing a ladder at the Benedum's loading dock and rushing to the production trailer. "When I started listening to the music, I really dug it."

After dropping out of high school at 15, Lubinsky landed his first full-time TV job at 16 and later produced shows for a Florida-based PBS station. Three years ago, he showed up at WQED with some crazy idea about a doo-wop special. The station hired him as a pledge producer and let him bring a few local oldies groups into the studio.

"That was in 1998," says WQED president and CEO George Miles outside the production trailer. "We were admittedly surprised at the reaction it got, so the next year we tried to do it right."

Miles booked stage time at the Benedum, brought in more groups, more equipment, acquired funding from Rhino Records (in exchange for retail rights to the live recording) and wrestled money from a reluctant PBS.

"It was huge. We made more money from that than from anything we've ever pledged," says Miles. "We showed those numbers to PBS, and they sent it to other member stations for their December [1999] pledge drives."

The results turned PBS upside down.

"You've got to understand," says Miles, "it raised more money in one play than 'Les Miz,' the highest pledging program in the history of public broadcasting, had raised in four plays. So far, in only two plays, 'Doo Wop 50' has raised about $18 million."

"There's a formula to pledge drives," says Lubinsky. "They look for a 10 to 1 ratio" in pledges vs. costs. "Our show made 35 to 1. A good investment."

Once thoroughly convinced that its core audience consisted of white widows 55 and older who like Yanni and "Masterpiece Theater," PBS is re-evaluating its demographics since "Doo Wop 50," says Miles.

"It's tapped into a whole new market. There were a lot of doubters, but they're realizing that there's a whole new audience out there that doesn't normally watch public television," says Miles. "PBS's mission should be to serve local stations. Our mission should be to serve the local market. I think we've gotten off track sometimes when PBS [has thought] it should serve local markets instead of stations. A very, very big change is happening, and our show is a big part of it."

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