Success Selling PBS Tent-Poles

At this year’s PMDMC in Boston, we hosted a lively discussion around Success Selling PBS Tent-Poles.  The session’s panelists – Elizabeth Laval | SVP for Content & Development | ValleyPBS and Linda Green Clark | Corporate Accounts Manager | WITF – share how they leveraged pop-out shows in their markets.

ValleyPBS | Ken Burns’s Jackie Robinson:
  ValleyPBS maximized this tent-pole by making it a community discussion.  They hosted a live panel discussion which they taped and aired with former baseball players and community leaders; the first taping was so successful that they hosted a second panel discussion.  They then held an event at their Minor League Baseball Team’s “The Fresno Grizzlies” on Jackie Robinson Day – April 15th where players wore #42 jerseys and a clip of the film was shown on the jumbotron.

The Majestic Theater | Gettysburg, PA

WITF | Mercy Street:  WITF planned a screening with panel discussion for Mercy Street.  What originally was going to be an event for 180 people, ended up being an event for 500 people complete with historians and the show’s EP Lisa Wolfinger.  WITF also planned a last-minute reception for donors, sponsors and panelists.

What made your approach with Jackie Robinson/Mercy Street different than before?

Elizabeth:  In our case (ValleyPBS), we decided to use the opportunity to reach out to community groups that may not have felt they had affinity or entrée to the station before. We ended up working with lots of new partners and some familiar partners as well. We also worked to add groups that were beyond the obvious for this project – for example, including Nisei baseball players, a Latina Olympian in softball and people with developmental disabilities through the Junior Grizzlies program, all who faced similar stigma and obstacles to the racial prejudice that Jackie Robinson faced, added wider appeal to the project. Something we had really not attempted before was to incorporate an event at the station into a content opportunity (panel discussion with studio audience) and a community outreach opportunity (in conjunction with the Fresno Grizzlies). I would say we were extremely ambitious with our goals for the grant and it paid off.

Celebrating Jackie Robinson at The Fresno Grizzlies

Linda:  Given our proximity to Gettysburg PA, Mercy Street naturally resonates with viewers across our region and is a good programming match for our station.  Due to a year-long 50th anniversary celebration, our window of opportunity to pull together an event was short so we kept it to a simple screening and historical panel discussion.  On the heels of Downton Abbey, however, we elevated our sales efforts through higher sponsorship levels than previously presented for any PBS series in its first season – about 60% greater.  In the end, revenue expectations were exceeded with record breaking event attendance. We are planning greater things for Season 2.

Fife & Drum Corps at the Mercy Street Event

How did you come up with the idea to approach a prospective client about a PBS sponsorship opportunity around Jackie Robinson/Mercy Street sponsorship/event?

Linda:  In addition to reaching our core audience, Mercy Street presented the unique opportunity to connect sponsors with specific programming content and tie-in sponsors with the location of our screening event.  Our sponsors included a College of Health Sciences who offers a nursing program, Holy Spirit Hospital, and a retirement community located near Gettysburg.  Our fourth sponsor was a key business owner who is passionate about civil war history and who owns a construction company with a vested interest in the Gettysburg community.

Is this the first time they had been a PBS sponsor?  Had you previously approached them about opportunities?  If so, what made this time different?

Elizabeth:  This was a perfect fit to partner with our local Community College District (education) and Black Women and Infants (BWIC) as sponsors. Our Valley is predominately Hispanic with only 4.4% African American, but we have a huge tradition of baseball. A program like Jackie Robinson would normally be of moderately high interest in our market. However, the expanded outreach gave us a perfect chance to talk to new potential partners and, even better, we were able to include more possible underwriters in the audience. Our underwriters spent the evening talking to people that would not generally have a reason to be at the station – this was very successful for us.

Linda:  Two of the four sponsors were new clients and both had been approached previously. In the past, the retirement community felt our footprint was too large.  They came on-board specifically because we brought Mercy Street to their back-yard.  As mentioned above, the construction company has strong ties to the Gettysburg community.  The owner is also a station donor and his wife serves on our board, but this was their first experience as a corporate sponsor.  Knowing your prospects and matching them to the right opportunity are keys to success!

How did you pitch this to sponsors?

Jackie Robinson – A Conversation | ValleyPBS

Elizabeth:  The unique combination of a Ken Burns film featuring a UCLA athlete and expanded outreach made the idea appealing to sponsors. The fact that we would air two hours of produced content from the panels, with would be promoted on the air made the sponsor ask much easier. Sponsors were tagged on promos and also included as production funders.

Linda:  The package included sponsor messages airing around the Mercy Street Sunday broadcast and Thursday rebroadcast, integration during the community engagement event and branding on event pre-promotion.  The sponsor package, connection to the Gettysburg community, and Mercy Street program content were at the core for targeting and pitching sponsors.

What was your game plan to execute these events?

Elizabeth:  Our event team was mobilized to organize the dinner part of the evening – from invitations to meal service. They also manned the table to hand out the Jackie Robinson/ValleyPBS branded baseballs at the Grizzlies’ game. Our production team handled the studio set up, taping and editing and our underwriting team handled the guest list, community outreach and sponsor sales. Lesson from this is your station’s various departments HAVE to work together to get the biggest impact out of a project like this.

Mercy Street Panelists

Linda:  It isn’t always easy to bring station departments together, but collaboration and coordination among departments is vital to the success of any event.  Our content/production team secured the venue and panelists, covered tech setup, provided on-air talent to serve as emcee, and created event promotion.  They also secured an on-air interview with Mercy Street Executive Producer, Lisa Wolfinger, and brought her to the event.  Our development team and events coordinator pulled together the reception, invited guests and helped man the event.  In addition to securing sponsors, our sales team is the liaison between sponsors and internal departments and coordinates all sponsor details.

How did you build buzz in your community around Jackie Robinson/Mercy Street?

Elizabeth:  Fortunately, our community partners and studio audience guests all helped promote the project widely. There is no better way to get people talking then to put them in an audience or on a panel that is going to be seen on the air. The more people involved as stakeholders in a project, the more buzz that will be generated. Be inclusive – the benefits are well worth the effort. We had young baseball players also in the audience so social media played a big part. Additionally, we utilized promos, e-blasts and social media to generate buzz as well.

Linda:  Much of the buzz created around Mercy Street stemmed from grass roots community initiatives.  Our partner, the Majestic Theater, listed the screening as one of their box-office attractions.  After attending the screening/panel discussion, the retirement community organized weekly viewing parties for their residents.  They also brought historians who served on the panel discussion to their community to speak and engage with residents. The Gettysburg Foundation blogged during the Mercy Street season and buzz continued this summer with a speaking engagement and book signing by Pamela D. Toler, PhD, author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War.  Additionally, the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association used Mercy Street as a backdrop for continuing nurse education and our station held  weekly Monday morning Mercy Street podcasts.

What do you feel is the number one benefit to your community?  Station? Sponsor?

ValleyPBS at The Fresno Grizzlies

Elizabeth:  Undoubtedly, one major benefit to our community is that the issue of racial/social prejudice is still so common in our area due to the population make up, that turning a program into an on-going conversation, has real and positive consequences. While the program didn’t focus on issues such as immigration, the ensuing discussion did. This project provided a jumping point for true educational dialogue in our area.  The station showed it could really do what our mission provides for: fostering discussions around important topics. Clearly, acquiring new sponsors made us very happy as well. Sponsors were literally delighted to be a part of such an important project and we have had nothing but superlative positive feedback – best measure is that they are signing up for more!

Linda:  This was an all-around fantastic community event with 498 in attendance and elevated
our station presence in a fringe market.  The audience was very engaged with the panelists and discussed issues relating to medicine, race, women’s rights and PTSD. The inclusion of Lisa Wolfinger as a panelist provided guests with an exclusive behind the scenes look into the filming of Mercy Street.  Sponsors were viewed as signature partners in bringing this event to the community. They were thrilled with the success and I believe most will come back for Season 2.  Stay tuned!

Lauren Cummings | Associate Director, Corporate Support, Station Relations | PBS

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