'Wrong' Approach Works Right at PBS Flagship

Reality TV’s ‘empty calories’ contrast with ‘quality’ in WNET New York promo campaign

Why This Matters

Nifty Fifty for 'Thirteen

WNET New York is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it is fighting hard to keep itself relevant for the next 50 years. The PBS station is reaching out to a new batch of A-list celebs to make offbeat fund-raising pitches, building on successful spots featuring actors Jeremy Irons and Joel Grey, among others, and also features the quarterly “Pioneers of Thirteen” specials. Pioneers shows memorable moments in station history, including archival programs featuring before-they-werefamous Dustin Hoffman and Martin Sheen, and WNET’s debut broadcast, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. “It’s a great way to remind people of all the great things we’ve done,” says Neal Shapiro, WNET president and CEO.

The next Pioneers special airs in September.

WNET is using its half-century anniversary as a fund-raising hook, seeking to top the $86 million it raised last year, 58% of it from individuals. Shapiro says arts production at the station is way up. An iPad app, dubbed Thirteen Explore, aims to bring the channel to a new generation of viewers. “We’re trying to get people to take a second look at what we’re doing,” he says, “or take a new look.” —MM

mmalone@nbmedia.com | @BCMikeMalone

Dowager Countess Violet’s snarky asides on Downton Abbey
notwithstanding, “funny” may not be high on the list when people are prompted for adjectives to describe
PBS. Yet WNET New York is using
sharp, timely humor to deliver
its message, make its programming
stand out and reach a younger audience.

Why This Matters
With a blockbuster hit and some edgy marketing, once-stuffy PBS is taking the fight to the commercial competition.

“Thirteen” is getting major
buzz with its TV Gone Wrong promos
spot-on send-ups of cheesy reality shows, including
“Long Island Landscapers,” about bickering,
taste-challenged lawn guys, and “Meet the
Tanners,” about a bickering, sun-worshipping
family—that are rolling out in markets around
the U.S. The 30-second trailers, which run on-air
and online, are followed by the message: “The
fact you thought this was a real show says a lot
about the state of TV,” then a plug to support
the un-cheesy stuff on PBS, which includes the
likes of multi-Emmy-winning hit Downton.

This is not, as WNET president and CEO
Neal Shapiro puts it, your father’s PBS station.
“There’s nothing wrong with
showing humor,” Shapiro says.
“Humor works when there’s a
touch of truth to it.”

Before there was TV Gone
Wrong, there were sly promos on
WNET featuring celebrities, including
David Hyde Pierce and
Patrick Stewart, subversively asking for viewer
donations by satirizing the channel’s seemingly
endless requests for funding. Shapiro says those
were a hit with viewers—and set the stage for
the faux reality. “People liked them,
and we saw that people gave more,”
he says. “We said, ‘We can do better.’”

Working with ad firm CHI & Partners,
WNET then hatched the TV
Gone Wrong promos, which include
un-real series “Married to a Mime”
and “Clam Kings,” and are a shot at
the cable channels that have bumped
arts from their lineups in favor of the
maximalist unscripted fare Shapiro
refers to as “empty calories.”

The promos went viral on You-
Tube and have been favorably covered
everywhere from USA Today to
the Today show.

Chris Sloan, president and founder
of branding firm 2C Media, believes
PBS is going through a “renaissance.”
The earlier cable nets, including MSNBC, Discovery
and A&E, stole some of PBS’ thunder
in terms of news, documentaries and arts coverage,
Sloan believes, but have since given that
up for partisan political commentary, reality
TV and more reality TV. Sloan loves the TV
Gone Wrong campaign. “The voice seems very,
very relevant and part of the zeitgeist,” he says.
PBS, he adds, “is part of the conversation again
in ways it hasn’t been in some time.”

Since launching in July, the campaign is airing
on at least 16 PBS stations, including those
in Philadelphia and San Diego. WEDU Tampa
picked it up in late July. “They’re funny and they
make people take a second look at PBS,” says
Susan Howarth, WEDU president/CEO. “They
make people realize how different our programming
is compared to what else is on television.”

Shapiro gets calls about the promos daily.
“You need to be innovative and smarter and
different,” he says. “These send a signal that
we’re not just a traditional station.”