PBS thinks outside box, pays for TV ads

TV/RadioColumn

`Frontier House' commercials air on network affiliates

May 01, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Those who watched Law & Order: CI's Bobby Goren undercut a particularly corrupt cop on WBAL-TV Sunday night - and if you weren't among them, you should have been - saw an ad on the NBC affiliate promoting Frontier House, a show on PBS.

That's right, PBS, as in the Public Broadcasting System. During the past year, the same PBS once so aloof from commerce has placed ads for six of its shows on major television network affiliates in 20 of the country's largest markets.

The campaign represents an unprecedented tack for PBS. President Pat Mitchell has vowed to reinvent PBS so that it attracts new viewers; advertising on commercial television is yet one more step in that quest.

More than 6 million people tuned in Monday night for the first episode of the three-part Frontier House, which purports to subject three American families to the rigors of 1880s Montana. That's more than twice the typical audience for PBS' prime-time lineup.

The "reality-based" show, which trumps CBS' Survivor and other game shows with a documentary guise, has attracted some positive reviews, which always help. Though Sun television critic David Zurawik was unimpressed, Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times, described Frontier House as "seductive," and Anita Gates of The New York Times called it "well done and morbidly fascinating."

But PBS officials place a lot of credit for the ratings on their new, focused advertising campaign. "This is proof that this strategy is working," says Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president for brand management and strategic positioning at PBS.

Just like any other television outlet, PBS needs to find a way to be heard when there are so many distractions on the air, its executives say. They've decided to fight fire with fire by advertising on competitors.

"PBS is trying to take the approach of reaching new audiences who might not regularly be watching PBS," says Jeanne M. Hopkins, a vice president for corporate communications at WGBH, a major public station in Boston.

Rotenberg would not disclose how much of PBS' $27-million promotional budget is dedicated to the multimedia campaign. But it includes ads placed on cable stations, CNN, CNBC, A&E, sponsorship of Metro Networks and NPR on radio, as well as big local stations such as WBAL (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13).

"They are in fact trying to get a little bit more aggressive and thought they could do that by reaching people who already watch TV," says Bill Fine, WBAL's general manager.

PBS officials say they are spending a fraction of that spent by their cable competitors, such as Discovery and the History Channel, and that they are spending no more than they have in years past. Instead, they're cutting back on ads for most programs, and are featuring just six shows in commercials, picked to reflect the rich range of shows that PBS offers to viewers.

While Rotenberg concedes that the producers of less-heralded shows have been resentful of the shift in philosophy, she says there's been no dissent about entering the realm of advertising on the networks.

So far, the results are mixed. Among those shows receiving the star treatment are Life 360, American Family and Now with Bill Moyers, which have yet to draw the ratings of Frontier House. The next program up: a re-broadcast of Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War.

New on `Wall Street'

Meanwhile, Maryland Public Television yesterday announced a new co-host for Wall Street Week with Fortune, one of the pair that will succeed Louis Rukeyser. Former financial analyst Karen Gibbs, currently of Fox News Channel, signed a three-year deal to join Geoffrey Colvin of Fortune magazine as host.

"Karen Gibbs is a very practiced financial journalist who has in her portfolio 10 years in the financial community," says Jeff Gralnick, the former network producer who is serving as a consultant to MPT in creating the new version of the program. "She knows the industry from the inside, and she knows the industry from the outside." He would not offer details of the new show, set to make its debut in June.

Gibbs, 49, was a vice president and senior futures analyst at Dean Witter before joining CNBC, and later Fox News. She says she's excited to be involved in the new Wall Street Week. "Either we're going to fall on our faces, or we're going to be excel- lent," she says over the phone. "There are no set rules. We know it won't be like the old show."

Gibbs had plans to meet Colvin last night for the first time in Manhattan over dinner. Colvin, also 49, is Fortune's editorial director.

Meanwhile, Rukeyser appears to be flourishing away from Owings Mills, where he taped Wall Street Week for 32 years. Eighty-six PBS stations are currently picking up the free weekend rebroadcast of Rukeyser's new CNBC show. Nearly 50 percent of the country can see him, once again, on public television.

"We happened to be in pledge break when his show first appeared on our station, and the phones lit up," says Laura Savini, vice president of marketing and communications at WLIW, the Long Island PBS station that is presenting the cable financial show for public stations.

Gibbs, born in Boston and raised in Chicago, says that her new show will offer strong perspective for today's investors. "If they don't like it, they can always switch back to the old show," she says.

David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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