PBS Comes Back: Beyond the Super-hits ‘The Roosevelts’ & ‘Downton Abbey.’ A Lesson for History?

At MIPCOM, I caught up with Beth Hoppe who heads national programming for PBS.

  • I had long wanted to publish a snapshot of PBS and its remarkable recent performance.
  • Here we go, with input from Beth and her colleagues.


  • PBS viewing held steady over a decade of erosion for broadcasters, and surged nearly 40% since 2008-09.
  • The commercial free-to-air networks have experienced declines in their individual and combined viewing.
  • Discovery also stalled, while History, A&E, Nat Geo and many other unscripted Cab/Sat leaders fell back from earlier gains.
  • In the hard-fought struggle to attract and retain viewers, it is a fine achievement for a non-profit — and somewhat anarchic — federation of 350 public TV stations to hold its ground against fierce commercial competition.



And the PBS average audience compares very favorably to the US multichannel universe.

PBS #5

For the 2013-14 broadcast season, ending September 21, 2014:

  • PBS was the fifth largest primetime household rating among all broadcast + cable nets, behind CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX.
  • PBS finished the season with a 1.50 (or an average audience of 2.2 mn viewers).
  • That’s a five percent rating increase compared to its average primetime household rating of 1.43 for 2012-13.
  • PBS ranked eighth in 2012-13, and 11th for 2011-12.
  • Across all broadcast + cable nets, PBS was one of only three top 10-rated networks (including NBC and ESPN) that saw a season-over-season increase in primetime ratings.
  • (Note: These #’s are very telling, but commercial networks target demo’s and not average primetime.)
  • Of the 21 hours of primetime programming each week on PBS, ratings went up in 19 hours vs last season.


  • Downton Abbey has been a huge super-hit for PBS.
  • But the audience gains go deeper.

The Roosevelts

  • Last month, 33+ million people sampled Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts.
  • The seven-part doc series, aired on consecutive nights in September, averaged 9.2 million viewers.
  • The premiere ep was the highest rated of the series, with an average of 11.7 million. It beat all other broadcast and cable programs that night in total viewers.
  • And the week of September 15, in which all other episodes premiered, was PBS’ most watched in 20 years.
  • The full episodes were streamed more than 1.85 million times.
  • Each person who watched The Roosevelts saw an average of nearly four hours of the series.
  • Congrats to Ken Burns, Florentine Films, the team at WETA, the presenting station, and PBS Programming.


FDR on his last campaign… at Fenway Park
Credit: Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library

Here is a list of 25 recent viewing highpoints compiled by PBS.

PBS Top-Rated Telecasts of Selected Series
Season to Date 2013-14 Through July 2014 

Series Name HH AA% P2+ AA(000)
1 Downton Abbey 9.73 15,488
2 The Roosevelts: An Intimate History 7.47 11,703
3 Antiques Roadshow: Detroit 4.56 7,040
4 A Capitol Fourth 3.54 5,520
5 Carol Burnett Mark Twain Prize 3.37 5,131
6 National Memorial Day Concert 3.29 5,443
7 American Experience 3.11 4,466
8 NOVA: Cold Case JFK 2.90 4,215
9 Call The Midwife 2.78 3,879
10 Nature: Love in the Animal Kingdom 2.38 3,457
11 History Detectives: Jimmy Hoffa 2.21 3,240
12 Secrets of Highclere Castle 2.04 3,141
13 Al Capone: Icon 2.02 2,827
14 Secrets of the Dead: JFK 1.95 2,848
15 Frontline: NFL Crisis 1.89 2,614
16 Lincoln@Gettysburg 1.87 2,754
17 Pioneers of Television 1.86 2,620
18 Last Tango in Halifax 1.85 2,579
19 My Wild Affair: Elephant 1.85 2,641
20 Genealogy Roadshow: Detroit 1.80 2,536
21 Hawking 1.70 2,409
22 Comet Encounter 1.68 2,369
23 Skeletons of the Sahara 1.62 2,401
24 Independent Lens: Muscle Shoals 1.29 1,784
25 American Masters: Hamlisch 1.21 1,616

Vs Cable

  • By way of comparison, on a recent October night, Pawn Stars led in the unscripted category, with 2.7 mn viewers.
  • Project Runway came next, with 2.6 mn.


Why is PBS on a roll?

  • Downton Abbey has been a once-in-a-generation megaphone to cross-promote the entire schedule and brand.
  • Meanwhile, Discovery, History, Nat Geo and others had increasingly turned to reality series, and ceded the niche for quality, Blue Chip singles and limited series to PBS.
  • That goes for imported UK drama, too.
  • The Smithsonian Channel, soon in 40 million homes vs PBS’s 109+/- million, similarly benefits by targeting the gap for entertaining, content-driven docs and specials.


History, Biography, Wildlife and Science are enjoying a significant increase in commissions:


Here is more detail:


Of leading strands:

  • Nova: Science originals are expanding from 18/year to 23.
  • And Nature, from 13/14 to 18.

This increase in original commissions is reducing the fatigue-making repeat factor across the PBS network.

PBS National Programming has also brought more consistency to its schedule.

  • It is less of a patchwork, and is increasingly structured to promote audience flow.
  • For example, according to PBS, around 40% of Wednesday’s 8pm Nature viewers stick around at 9pm for Nova. Wednesday viewing is up 30% over 4 years.


PBS is on a roll.

  • Its part ‘Act of God.’ Who could have anticipated Downton Abbey?
  • And part because PBS is doing much better what PBS has always strived to do well.

The ‘business model’ is still a challenge:

  • PBS lacks the twin ad sales and affiliate fee revenue streams of cable nets, making its recent progress all the more impressive.
  • Sponsorship is a very hard sale.
  • So is foundation funding.
  • And the PBS audience is older and under-valued.
  • For producers, commissions are highly competitive. That’s the case at the national level and for the strands like Nova.
  • But as we showed in our Pilot Productions / Globetrekker Case Study, there are many ways for enterprising producers to succeed in public television.

History Lessons

  • History made the classic shift from the ‘Hitler Network’ known for series from the WW2 archive, to a reality-based franchise led by Ice Road Truckers.
  • However, its been several years since Pawn Stars became History’s last breakout hit series.
  • Variety recently reported that A+E Networks recorded a ratings decline of 22% for 3Q14 vs 3Q13 for the 18-49 Demo in Primetime, which it described as ‘nothing short of staggering.’
  • A+E just this week announced a rare shakeup in a senior management team that is known for its stability, as reported by Realscreen.
  • According to very recent buzz from agents and producers, History is renewing calls for historically-based programs.
  • Did slumping Reality ratings and The Roosevelts teach History a History lesson?
  • Maybe. More to come…

Our PBS Coverage


Here’s why.

I arrived in NYC in January 1981, wanting to make a go of it.

President Reagan was defunding social programs. Educational media, the field where I had established myself in Melbourne, was roadkill.

I had no resume and few contacts.  New York was harshly competitive.

A friend recounted a line from ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’:

“I feel like a country dog in the city. If I run they nip my heels. And if I stand still, they screw me!”

That rang my bells.

I was out of money and ready to give up when I received a callback from WNET, New York’s public television station. David Rosen hired me to work on ‘The American City’, a series hosted by John Lindsay, the patrician former mayor.

My life stabilized. Here I am 33 years later enjoying a career that could not have been replicated anywhere except in New York. Thanks WNET.

David remains a great friend, and has been a rock of support for my DocumentaryTelevision.com venture.

And years later after my turn at CBS, WNET became my first client when I launched my consulting practice. Thanks Tim Gunn!

Takeaway: I have enormous gratitude for WNET and PBS.


Upcoming Conferences / Presentations

World Congress of Science and Factual Producers

Window On South Africa
Friday, Nov. 21 09:45 am – 10:45 am

With the explosion of digital channels and web streaming, science and knowledge television is taking off in South Africa—but what about opportunities for co-production?

Session Producer
Pascal Schmitz, Co-Owner and Director, AAA Entertainment/Owner, Amariam Pictures + Amariam Productions (RSA)

Lehlohonolo Mokhosi, Deputy Director, Film and TV Production Incentives, Department of Trade & Industry (RSA)
Tshego Molete Khanyile, Producer, Happy Brown Babies (RSA)
Nisha Naidoo, The Creative Advantage (RSA)
Joseph Oesi, Director/Producer/Cinematographer, Hambrook Communications (RSA)

Peter Hamilton (Australia/USA)