PBS aims to redefine itself in the onslaught of new kids competitors

Reports of PBS's demise have been greatly exaggerated, but the U.S. pubcaster faces formidable challenges that require it to think more like a commercial network, while not compromising its rigid curriculum standards for children's shows....
November 1, 1998

Reports of PBS’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, but the U.S. pubcaster faces formidable challenges that require it to think more like a commercial network, while not compromising its rigid curriculum standards for children’s shows.

Growing competition among broadcast and cable channels for preschool-age viewers, political pressure questioning the need to fund public broadcasting, claims that PBS has sold its soul in exchange for ancillary opportunities from shows like Teletubbies, the loss of programs like Shining Time Station and Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus to other channels, and the departure of Alice Cahn, director of children’s programming at PBS for the last five years, are among the dilemmas PBS must resolve as it redefines itself in a competitive marketplace.

Despite inroads made by other channels, PBS has no intention of relinquishing its claim as the primary place where parents can find noncommercial, uninterrupted, children’s educational programs, especially in the preschool area, where its weekday Ready To Learn block is considered by some to be the ‘gold coast’ of preschool programming.

Among preschoolers and school-age children, PBS viewership held its ground in 1997-98 from 1996-97. It posted a 30% share of preschool audience (kids ages two to five), weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., down only 1% from 1996-97, according to information provided by Saatchi & Saatchi Media Research from Nielsen Television Index, while its overall share among kids ages two to 11 climbed from 20% to 21%. Nickelodeon’s gains for the same time slot and demographic (15% to 19%) came mostly at the expense of Fox (16% down to 12%). PBS ranks third overall on weekdays from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. among kids ages two to 11, with a 12% share (up from 10% in 1996-97), behind Nick (17%) and Fox (14%), which are slightly lower than last year.

Roughly 8.3 million preschoolers (53.2% of children ages two to five) and 7.8 million children ages six to 11 (33.5% of kids that age) watch PBS in a typical week, according to a Nielsen Total Viewing Sources report (Nov. `97/Feb. `98), a 28% gain since the 1995-96 season. Its highest-rated shows in the 1997-98 season were Arthur, Barney & Friends, Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus, Sesame Street and Teletubbies, in descending order.

The competitive broadcast environment has forced PBS to put more money into program development and enter into multiyear contracts with key signature properties, including Barney & Friends (The Lyons Group), Arthur (Cinar/WGBH), Sesame Street (CTW) and Zoboomafoo (Paragon), which debuts in January. ‘We want to have a greater sense of control and longevity [of these shows] to use them in a significant way to build our brand,’ says John Wilson, VP of programming services for PBS.

PBS, through its National Program Service (NPS), offers more than 40 hours of children’s programming weekly to its member stations, which can choose what they air, or acquire other programming via a syndicator such as American Program Services. In fiscal year 1997, PBS spent US$18.4 million, or roughly 14%, of its overall US$132-million NPS budget on children’s programming.

‘PBS knows how important the preschool block is to its survival,’ says Kenn Viselman, president of The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, which markets Teletubbies, Tots TV and Noddy in the U.S. ‘Its commitment to Teletubbies is a statement that it will continue to make controversial choices because, [as a noncommercial entity], it can.’

Although PBS continues to pay license fees for some programs, its more prevalent business model is to get producers to forego these fees. It believes that the exposure it can give a show through its distribution (nearly 100% of U.S. TV households), and the seal of approval that the PBS brand represents to parents, mean that producers may be able to recoup those expenses via ancillary markets or in future program sales. ‘Ancillary activity and awareness that can be generated from PBS is greater than anything you can get from pay or premium cable or other means,’ says Louis Fournier, VP of distribution and marketing at Cinar, whose Wimzie’s House and Arthur run on PBS.

In exchange, PBS expects to participate in revenue generated by these programs because it believes that its distribution merits that reward. ‘PBS is much better at evaluating its reach and putting some sense of value on that,’ says Rick Siggelkow, creator and executive producer of Noddy and VP of the children’s division at BBC Worldwide.

Two of PBS’s longest-running children’s shows, Magic School Bus (Scholastic) and Shining Time Station (Britt Allcroft) recently left for greener pastures, though in both cases, the producers said it was to expose the shows to new audiences rather than because of any beef with PBS. ‘We still have a large deficit on Magic School Bus, and [while] that’s not the reason for selling it [to Fox], it does come into play when deciding whether we want to reinvest in a project,’ says Deborah Forte, executive VP at Scholastic, which will not be producing any new episodes of the series for Fox. Scholastic received only about 10% of the show’s production budget from PBS.

PBS is working with member stations to resolve the longtime complaint from producers and corporate sponsors of the lack of a centralized broadcast schedule. Common carriage has significant implications in the areas of national underwriting, national promotion and educational outreach programs, says Wilson, especially now, when so many alternative channels can guarantee a national air time that PBS traditionally hasn’t.

Looking to the future, PBS now has on-line extensions for most of its programming and has recently announced a digital service, PBS Kids, which it hopes to roll out once DBS channel set-aside issues are resolved.

PBS has had a mandate over its 30-year existence to find the best programming it can bring to its audience, whether it’s American-made or imported. Wilson feels that more competition is good for PBS because it forces PBS to continue to be aggressive about finding ‘that next big thing,’ programs that provide an experience that begins with a TV series and extends beyond the screen to help children in their development.

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