PBS Binge-Watching Experiment Boosts Ken Burns’ ‘Roosevelts’

Binge-watching is a relatively new TV-viewing behavior that has the viewer making an active choice to watch a series hour after hour after hour. Now PBS appears to have cracked the nut on getting people to do it with a TV network more firmly in control of the process.

PBS’ recent broadcast of “The Roosevelts,” an epic 14-hour series, reached more than 33.3 million viewers who tuned in to local PBS stations to watch the Ken Burns-helmed series, according to Nielsen live-plus-seven data released Wednesday by the network. The numbers are surprising because PBS ran the series in primetime over seven consecutive nights, from Sunday, September 14 to Saturday, September 20 , demanding a significant time commitment from viewers.

PBS typically sees its highest program ratings for drama series, said Beth Hoppe, the network’s chief programming executive and general manager of its general-audience programming, but getting these sorts of numbers for a non-fiction series with TV viewing as fragmented as it has become “is unheard of” – and executives believe the availability of the series on new-tech platforms like the web, Roku and elsewhere helped.

“It looks like it was largely catch-up,” Hoppe said of viewers’ digital behavior. “Few people tried to jump ahead and often came back into the broadcast” looking to take part in the community aspect of the overarching event, she added.

The average audience for all seven episodes of “The Roosevelts” was 9.2 million, making the series the third highest-rated Ken Burns program on PBS following 1990’s “The Civil War” and 1997’s “Lewis and Clark” – and both of those series aired at a time when PBS had fewer competitors.

“I think it’s a real validation of long-form video,” said Burns speaking via mobile phone from Dallas. “It is said of the American people that they have the attention span of a gnat, that they are not interested in a fairly complex narrative over a long period of time, and this experiment worked – in the midst of a new fall season, you can run a program over seven straight nights and get the viewers to follow you.”

The week that the second through seventh episodes of “The Roosevelts were broadcast represents the most-watched week on PBS in 20 years, the network said, since the week in 1994 that the second through sixth episodes of “Baseball” debuted.

Viewership patterns for the series may serve to feed TV networks’ hunger for so-called “event” programming, stuff that aims to gather big audiences together for something that is only available for a limited period of time. Already, NBC is seeking a whopping $350,000 or more for its coming live broadcast of the musical “Peter Pan,” featuring actress Allison Williams. Meanwhile, ABC is nearly sold out of ad time for its 2015 Oscars broadcast, for which it is seeking around $1.9 million for a 30-second commercial.

Viewers could access all seven episodes through PBS stations’ video sites, PBS.org, and PBS station-branded digital platforms, including Roku, Apple TV and Xbox. The full episodes were streamed more than 1.85 million times, with one-third of the streams delivered via PBS’ over-the-top apps.

PBS will have more series from Burns to show for several years to come. The documentarian said he is involved with “The Story Of Cancer,” a film by Barak Goodman slated to appear on PBS over three nights in 2015, and is in the midst of working on a ten part series on the war in Vietnam for 2016 as well as a big series on country music scheduled for PBS in the 2018-2019 season.

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