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Tuned In: Promising pledge breaks

Thursday, April 17, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Tonight WQED-TV is expected to conclude a mini-pledge period necessitated, station executives said, when its March pledge drive was cut short by the start of war in Iraq.

For some viewers, no pledge period is brief enough. For WQED, pledge is increasingly important.

At last month's board of directors meeting, Lilli Moscow, vice president of development and membership, made a presentation showing how WQED compares to other PBS stations with respect to pledge periods.

She surveyed the Top 50 markets and found stations, on average, devoted 57 days to pledge per year. WQED is at 65. But when she narrowed the focus to stations with a comparable number of members -- 40,000 to 50,000 -- the national average was 67 pledge days.

Pledge is becoming more important for stations nationally as a fund-raising tool. In 1999, pledge revenue totaled 42 percent and non-pledge revenue made up 58 percent of individual contributions for WQED. By 2002, there was a 9 percent flip, with 51 percent of members donating through pledge and 49 percent through nonpledge means. That change mirrors a national trend, Moscow said earlier this week.

"All nonprofits endeavor to create value before the purely philanthropic aspects of a contribution," she said. "We have this built-in ability through the products -- DVS, VHS tapes, CDs -- we offer."

As donors look to receive something in return for a contribution, they're shifting from donating to PBS stations by mail to pledging and getting a gift in return.

"We obviously have evolved from the tote bag and mug days to where now we're offering more sophisticated items," Moscow said, "but that's really a response to what the market is demanding."

Another reason she suspects there's been a rise in pledge donations: Home shopping channels have accustomed TV viewers to ordering items seen on TV and giving credit card numbers over the phone.

In addition to April's mini-pledge, WQED has been airing pledge programming on a trial basis in the wee hours of the morning when the station would otherwise be off the air.

At the national level, pledge program content has become an issue. PBS president Pat Mitchell has repeatedly stated her wish that pledge programming more closely resemble regular PBS programming as opposed to the pseudo-infomercials that often air.

Sunday night WQED aired a Suze Orman financial special titled "The Laws of Money, the Lessons of Life." Monday night Channel 13 aired another doo-wop concert. Tuesday the station broadcast the infomerical-like "How to Live Forever" with Gary Null, who asked viewers, "Are your beliefs toxic?"

"Evidence shows relying on that [type of program] often brings people into a membership situation to buy a product, not to support the programming on the station," PBS's Mitchell said at a January news conference. "When we look at long-term sustainable membership, we can't really rely on that kind of programming."

Mitchell said PBS supplies only some of the programs member stations use during pledge periods, and she's working to ensure the PBS-supplied programs more closely resemble regular PBS shows and "will bring in members who are there for the right reasons."

This season, PBS began to run pledge breaks during select regular programs, including the "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of "The Forsyte Saga" and a rerun of "The Civil War."

"We're pledging programs that say to the viewer, 'If you care about this kind of programming and you want to support it, this is what you're going to find, day in and day out, not just during pledge opportunity.' "

Another complaint from local viewers is WQED's decision to label its pledge programming in published TV listings as "Members' Choice," rather than saying specifically what will be on the air. There's a reason for this: Before use of the "Members' Choice" label, programs listed in TV grids sometimes would end up not airing.

If multiple PBS stations aired, say, a Sid Caesar special and it didn't raise much money, WQED might opt to pull it from the schedule in fairly last-minute fashion. By labeling the entire prime-time block generically, WQED seeks to avoid dashing viewers' expectations.

John F. Wilson, co-chief program executive at PBS, said he's glad member stations communicate with one another about the success and failure of fund-raising programs.

"The fact of the matter is these stations are in a fight for their lives, ..." he said, "so they are very mercenary about it."

Wilson said his only regret is that viewers sometimes see listings or on-air promotion for a pledge program that is later pulled.

"That's always unfortunate and frustrating," he said, "but I know the motivation is just simply that they've got to earn their living."

Ultimately, there's no gray area about what makes a good pledge program. It's all about money.

"It can't be, 'Gee, it didn't raise a lot of money, but it felt good.' That's not the point of pledge," Wilson said. "It's very clinical in terms of what worked and what didn't."

dot.gif More WPXI changes

Last week we learned that Channel 11's Keith Jones plans to leave the station, and now comes news the other half of the station's weekend evening anchor team will move from full-time to part-time status.

Jodine Costanzo, weekend anchor for the past five years, will step down at the end of June so she can spend more time with her son, who was born last May. She'll stay with the station as a fill-in anchor and part-time reporter.

"I walk away with a heavy heart because I enjoy anchoring the weekends," Costanzo said, "but I really want to spend more time with my son. That's where my priorities are right now."

Stacia Erdos, weekend morning anchor since 1999, will take Costanzo's place anchoring weekend evenings in early July. No replacement for Jones has been named.

Vince Sims, a new hire, will replace Erdos at the anchor desk weekend mornings. Sims arrives at WPXI from KJRH in Tulsa, Okla., where he's been weekend anchor since December 2000.

dot.gif Another Rogers memorial

Pittsburgh Seminary will remember its acclaimed alumnus, children's show host Fred Rogers, in a memorial service at 3:30 p.m. May 2 at the seminary's Hicks Memorial Chapel. This memorial, which is open to the public, comes a day before a televised memorial service at Heinz Hall.

Rogers, who died Feb. 27, was a 1962 graduate of the seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister.

dot.gif Early season enders

NBC's "Scrubs" and "Good Morning, Miami" finish up their seasons tonight and ABC's "Life With Bonnie" bowed out a couple of weeks ago.

Generally when a network allows a show to exhaust original episodes before sweeps, it's often the kiss of death. But "Bonnie" has been renewed and "Scrubs" will be ("Miami" may or may not return).

This appears to be a new strategy to reduce the number of in-season reruns in nonsweeps months and replace lower-rated series during sweeps with reruns of better-rated shows, particularly comedies in hammock time slots (8:30 and 9:30 p.m.).

NBC's "Boomtown" ends its first season Sunday with an hour that resolves a plot centered on the show's most soulful character, Det. Joel Stevens (Donnie Wahlberg).

When "Boomtown" began, its reliance on storytelling from multiple points of view made the show unique. Despite some growing pains, writers/producers quickly realized the characters are the heart of the show, and stories in the second half of the season reflected that newfound confidence in the series' talented ensemble cast.

Although NBC has not given "Boomtown" an official pickup for a second season, gut instinct says this drama will return.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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