Music Vets Turn to PBS to Boost Profile

Pubcaster’s boomers a boon to established acts, and vice versa

The B-52s

Fresh-faced talents like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift might command the charts, but when it comes to top-touring acts, the veterans hold sway. And it’s artists like the Who, James Taylor and the B-52s who have turned to the Public Broadcasting System, which unashamedly targets an older demographic, to boost their profile, and vice versa.

PBS is known for such adult programming as Masterpiece Theater and its American Masters documentary series, but when it comes to raising money during challenging economic times, the music of the baby boomer generation has proved a salvation. The result has been the marriage of established touring acts and the enormous audience reach of PBS membership pledge specials, which give the artist much-needed tour and product promotion, and provide the public network its financial lifeblood.

“For music acts, it’s all about touring income,” says Barry Ehrmann, president of Enliven Entertainment, which has produced many PBS music specials used for its pledge programming. “Boosting tour revenue is now the goal. It’s not about record sales anymore. Anything that can boost that, especially on television, they have to do.”

With PBS the problem was even more direct: 20 years ago the net was simply out of touch with the entertainment needs of its baby boomer membership and had to do something about it.

“We found that as boomers were starting to age they wanted to contribute to charities but they were looking for something else,” says Joe Campbell, VP of fundraising programming for PBS. “They wanted something much more experiential. We realized that concerts were a hugely successful way to get boomers to become members.”

For established acts like Jeff Beck, Aaron Neville and Chris Isaak, getting chosen to participate in PBS’ pledge programming has become among the highest coveted promotional achievements. For younger artists, such as Chris Botti, Josh Groban and Joe Bonamassa, their PBS exposure can be directly linked to their rapid rises in popularity and sales. And in the case of Andrea Bocelli, his participation in PBS pledge drives took him from a near unknown in the United States into a hugely well-remunerated superstar, often receiving in excess of $1 million per show..

“Think about it,” says Ehrmann, “PBS is pretty much in every household in America. You can’t say that about AXS TV, HBO, and Showtime. It reaches 90 % of the homes and that is the big difference.”

Says Fred Schneider, lead singer of the B-52s: “(PBS) created a lot of demand for the DVD of the program they aired, and it alerted all the markets we were about to be playing in, so, in short, yes it was really, really helpful. A lot of our fans watch PBS, as it turned out; and the B-52s are all fans of Downton Abbey.”

The network is one of the few remaining outlets that will spend considerable funds underwriting the production of such shows, especially if execs feel there will be a good return on investment. According to Campbell, the average music production will budget out at anywhere from $500,000-$750,000, with PBS investing as much as 35%. Although Campbell and his associates make the final decision, a general rule of thumb is 75% of the member stations have to agree to take a show in order for it to be financially successful as a pledge program. The majority of the pledge programming airs during its three main drives: spring, fall, and the holiday season.

The modern age of PBS music programming for pledge drives began in 1994 with the broadcast of Yanni Live at the Acropolis. The show combined ethereal music with exotic world locations and made Yanni — whose fan base was limited to New Age music enthusiasts — a global music star.

While PBS has made great efforts to attract younger viewers with shows like Soundstage in the ’70s and Austin City Limits, it has had to gradually break in new acts inside pledge programs. “We are doing the new Eric Clapton Crossroads Festival this month,” says Campbell, “and you will see a number of younger artists in that show, and that is generally how we showcase them.”

“Baby boomers are their primary target and they do not like to go outside of that,” says Ehrmann. “We’ve tried to reach a younger audience on a limited basis, but for us, 50 is still young. We want those people whose kids are out of college and have a little disposable income.”

While PBS does keep an eye on presenting varying genres of music, in the end, programming decisions are based on the bottom line. Says Campbell, “I am not thinking that because we have the B-52s, I better get a Placido Domingo show.”