I am a PBS supporter and have been for many years. My phone’s ringtone plays the first few notes of the theme song from that classic Masterpiece program, Poirot. Yes, I know I should get something timelier but I’ve been waiting for PBS to update its business model first.  It’s in dire need of a fix. Absent fundamental changes, public broadcasting may go the way of horseracing and other businesses that failed to attract younger audiences.

Let’s start right there, with PBS’s target audience. More specifically, with those it targets with its fundraising pitches. PBS needs donations to survive. Clearly, it sees baby boomers as the source of those contributions. Boomers have grown accustomed to watching public broadcasting and understand its fundraising necessity. They can be expected to have money and an inclination to donate some of it to their local stations.

So, how does PBS market to these target donors?  In a word: Poorly. 

Let’s begin with that fundraising-drive stalwart, the never ending stream of 1960s musical acts. Most of these performers are shown in past-their-prime concert footage singing tunes that viewers have long since downloaded on Spotify or Amazon Music. Does PBS think that its audience is unable to find these same videos, or better ones, online?  Do viewers really want their tv watching experience to be interrupted repeatedly by one of these tired, old musicians shilling onscreen for donations?  Not likely.

Of course, 1960s acts are just the beginning.  Most PBS fundraising drives are saturated with shows aimed at an infirm audience in need of retirement, exercise, and healthy eating tips.  All worthy topics but, if you enjoyed watching the aforementioned musical acts in the 1960s you are already retired. The time for planning has passed. If you haven’t been eating well or exercising for the past sixty or so years, well, a more useful program might address how to write a last will and testament . . . one that includes bequests to public broadcasting, of course.

Perhaps you think that PBS is targeting a younger-than-boomer fundraising audience?  Really?  Have you seen any of those Esmonde Miranda (Aging Backwards), Lee Albert (3 Steps to Pain Free Living), or Suze Orman (Ultimate Retirement Guide) programs?  One grows old just watching them!  And let’s not forget PBS trendsetter, Ken Burns. He turns 70 next year.  Just saying.

The PBS donor base is aging. Its operating expenses are high. Competition for content has never been more keen. Programs grow successful on PBS only to move to more lucrative outlets. Public funding has diminished. I’ve seen other companies, including non-profits, face similar challenges. The successful ones incorporated new partners, revenue streams, marketing methods, customers, and/or supporters. Those that chose to standpat faded away.

Flogging the same old (donor) horses is not a plan for success.


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Peter Dragone - Co-founder of Keurig.