At PBS, there are very specific criteria for choosing which films to promote and/or advertise. Says Lesli Rotenberg, SVP of brand management, promotion and media relations for PBS, ‘It is a difficult decision, because there’s so much quality [programming].’ To help with the determination, Rotenberg notes, films and series are vetted to ensure they have the qualities PBS holds dear: that they are brand defining, have broad audience appeal, can generate buzz and will have impact onscreen and off in the form of outreach initiatives.
If so, there are two main marketing levels for shows at PBS: key level, which denotes a program that receives on-air promotion and pr; and pop-out level, which gets a complete promotional treatment including print, radio and tv ads. Key level programs generally utilize in-house resources, while pop-outs use in-house and outsourced creative talent.
Though Rotenberg can’t say specifically how many programs receive marketing funds annually (the last to be advertised was Colonial House, a living history format coproduced by New York’s WNET, London’s Wall To Wall and C4), she confirms the team looks for projects across a range of genres, including docs. In fact, Origins – a copro between Watertown, U.S.-based Thomas Levenson Productions, Unicorn Projects in Washington, D.C. and wgbh Boston about how the universe began – is set to air this September on ‘Nova’ and will be the first-ever pop-out program for the science strand.
Rotenberg looks for pop-outs to deliver 93% above the PBS primetime average and, she says, most of the 2003/04 programs so designated met that target. But, it was the key level programs – most notably The Elegant Universe and Mars: Dead or Alive – that were ratings gangbusters. ‘The stations really focused on them,’ she notes, ‘and they generated a ton of press.’
The Elegant Universe, a three-part series that aired on ‘Nova’ last November, leveraged on-air promos created in-house. As well, a ‘Nova’ communications team worked closely with the hip science mag SEED, and the series received an advert and cover mention that featured scientist and program host Brian Greene.
‘We couldn’t afford to do much advertising for The Elegant Universe,’ notes Paula Apsell, exec producer of ‘Nova’. ‘But we got [Greene] on TV, and he had interviews in Scientific American. It was all over the place, even though it wasn’t a pop-out item.
‘It’s a struggle in this segmented marketplace,’ she continues. ‘Series like The Elegant Universe prove that you don’t have to water down the material to attract an audience. You have to do it well, and you have to let people know it’s on. It’s harder than it sounds because both of those things cost a lot of money.’
Pubcaster marketing 101: Start with the right show
With money always in short supply and more likely to go towards production than marketing, pubcasters have found that docs that tie into the cultural zeitgeist can be a CE’s best bet for garnering attention. The BBC strand ‘Horizon’, for example, found success with November 2002′s Homeopathy: The Test and January 2004′s The Atkins Diet. Both films were singled out by bbc marketing heads to receive funding for on-screen promos because of their buzz potential – in addition to tapping into two hot topics, the strand commissioned research experiments around the programs to try and dispel myths and test the efficacy of homeopathic treatments and the Atkins diet. For The Atkins Diet, ‘Horizon’ partnered with the University of Kansas for an investigation that saw one identical twin undergo a conventional diet while the other adhered to the Atkins diet.
‘By and large, our strand doesn’t get any marketing,’ says ‘Horizon’ editor Matthew Barrett, ‘apart from sending preview tapes to reviewers at newspapers.’ The U.K. press, however, closely covered The Atkins Diet. ‘[The studies] allowed them to present the mystery of how the Atkins diet works,’ says Barrett.
Meanwhile, the homeopathy experiment sparked a debate about the practice (it helped that Her Majesty is a proponent), and spurred press coverage in the major British papers including the Times and The Observer. As well, New Scientist and other popular science magazines discussed the experiments’ methods. As for ratings, Atkins garnered 3.7 million viewers (a 16% share), while Homeopathy pulled in 3.2 million (a 14% share).
To make sure subjects tap the zeitgeist, the BBC conducts extensive research to discover what audiences want. ‘We find out what people think about the commentary style, the music, the cutting style, what other kinds of TV they watch,’ says Barrett. ‘It’s a constant process and the BBC is doing a lot of that now, which is immensely helpful.’