'Wrong' Approach WorksRight 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 [thirteen.org/tvgonewrong/]— 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.”