TRAC's Rating Service
Staying Tuned

Programming For Flow

Do viewers stick with public TV from one show to the next? Do "Nature" fans stay tuned for "Masterpiece Theatre?" Or "NOVA" viewers keep their seats for "Frontline?"

Opposites Don't Attract Flow

Not surprisingly, the "flow" between similar kinds of programs is higher than the flow between programs that are different. People who watch "Nature" are more likely to watch "National Geographic," "Wild America," "NOVA," and "Survival." Scheduling similar kinds of programs back-to-back increases the chances that a viewer will stay tuned.

But much of public TV's prime-time schedule encourages people to turn the dial. Drama shows follow nature shows. Science shows precede older female-skewing documentaries. Public TV's cume increases because of this audience turnover. An audience flow builds frequency or time spent viewing, an important strategy to encourage audience loyalty.

Prime Time Flow

First, a truism. Weekday viewing differs from weekend viewing. During the week people have more consistent living patterns: They get up, go to work, come home, eat and watch TV.

During the week, the beginning of prime time -- 8 p.m. in the East, 7 p.m. in the rest of the country -- is the most important time for programmers. This is even more true for public TV than it is for commercial TV because the first hour of programming attracts the largest percentage (around 40 percent) of public TV's prime-time audience. At 9 p.m. public TV's audience decreases by about a third. Another third leaves at 10 p.m.

About 80 percent of the people who tune in to public TV during an average weekday evening are already watching TV at 8 p.m. The remaining people will turn on their sets just in time to catch the first hour of prime-time programming. But few people turn on their TVs at 9 or 10 p.m. Few turn them off, either. Instead, they switch stations.

The data collected show that public TV viewers may not be as selective TV viewers as assumed. When people leave public TV after the first or second hour of prime time, they don't turn off their sets to read Socrates. They usually switch to another -- commercial -- channel. In most markets people begin to turn off their TVs at 10 p.m.

The "typical" public TV viewer watches few public TV programs during the week. So it should come as no surprise to discover that in markets with more than one public station, people don't switch from one public TV station to the other. In Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, primary public TV stations such as WGBH, WHYY, WETA, WTTW and KCET obtain less than one percent of their total prime-time week, public TV stations may share audiences (we estimate about 20 percent of the principal station's viewers will watch other public TV channels), but on any given day, public stations in the same market don't generally share audience.

Audience Origination

So where does public TV's audience come from? Mostly from the three networks. And among the networks, public TV draws most of its viewers from CBS and NBC. Given that public TV's prime-time audience is a bit older than the average for television overall, it's not surprising that CBS, the demographically oldest network, contributes so much to it. But it's surprising that ABC, cable and independent stations contribute so little.

How much of public TV's audience does flow from one public TV program to another?

First, a warning. When evaluating audience flow, averages can be deceptive. Some programs flow a lot better than others. For example, there's little audience continuity between "Wall Street Week" and "Great Performances" (about 15-20 percent). But there's tremendous flow between "Washington Week" and "Wall Street Week" -- about 89 percent. A rough "average" flow estimate is about 15 percent between dissimilar programs and 30-40 percent between similar programs.

Information for flow studies comes from data gathered during Nielsen or Arbitron ratings periods. It helps to evaluate audience flow in each market to determine the dynamics at work in a schedule and to examine and plan promotion possibilities. But understanding audience flow can be difficult unless the presentation is understood.

A few examples from a Thursday night in Boston and Chicago demonstrate some of the programming that makes public TV unique: a commitment to community and public service. In Station X's case, this commitment to public affairs and local programming is clear, with "Chicago Tonight" leading into Staton X's series, "Sneak Previews." These two unique schedules appear on probably public TV's hardest scheduling night.

Table 23

From the
Station X
6:45 pm MacNeil/Lehrer
7:00 pm Chicago Tonight 86 69 -20% 36% 53%
7:30 pm Sneak Preview 72 75 +4% 39% 60%
8:00 pm Soldiers 74 121 +63% 26% 47%
9:00 pm Mystery! 121 134 +11% 23% 48%
Staton Y
7:45 pm World Survival
8:00 pm This Old House 43 131 +163% 33% 50%
8:30 pm Say Brother 109 30 -73% 23% 36%
9:00 pm Mystery! 26 110 +323% 43% 34%
10:00 pm 10 0'Clock News 118 49 -58% 16% 27%
10:30 pm Nightly Business 46 25 -46% 41% 11%

Notice that the "lead-in" audience in the table refers to the audience coming from the lead-in program. For Station X, in Chicago, MacNeil/Lehrer delivers 86,000 homes to the 7 p.m. slot. "Chicago Tonight" ends up with 69,000 homes. Thus, this program records a 20 percent decline in audience size. Further, only 36 percent of "MacNeil" viewers stayed tuned for "Chicago Tonight." The networks delivered 53 percent of "Tonight's" audience. The flow between "Tonight" and "Sneak Preview" is 39 percent. Notice that although the absolute size of the 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. audience is similar, many viewers leave and are replaced by new viewers. So, similar audience size for adjacent programs doesn't mean that the audience flows or stays tuned.

Now look at Boston. For Station Y, "The Old House" is a "local" hit -- which draws 163 percent more people than the show that precedes it. Next comes "Say Brother," a local minority series; the "Old House" audience drops 73 percent. But it bounces back up at 9 p.m. with "Mystery!" -- a gain from 26,000 to 110,000 homes. "Mystery!," in turn, leads into the "10 O'Clock News," which shows a 58 percent drop in audience. Obviously, these adjacent program have great differences in audience appeal and interest. What can we conclude from these two examples? First, while many critics of public TV decry its creeping commercialism, many stations display a commitment to local service and public affairs. Further, stations will sacrifice audiences to schedule programs that they feel "should be aired."

More specifically, we might also conclude that public TV program combinations differ when it comes to flow potential. Flow ranged from 16 to 41 percent in the Chicago/Boston examples. Most of the audience gains for public TV came from the networks. In fact, the networks usually contributed more to the audience for a particular program than the public TV show that preceded it. That's because public TV schedules for turnover, and network audiences are so large that they overwhelm audience distributions when they begin to move.

While most of public TV's audience seems to come from commercial channels, a few programs in the Public Broadcasting Service schedule appear to be unique, in that they attract their own audience. For some reason, viewers who are not-watching TV turn on their sets for "Mystery!". This suggest, perhaps, that "Mystery!" attracts "light" TV viewers. Selective viewers, maybe? Or viewers with VCRs.

Weekend Prime Time Flow

Let's turn now to a few observations about weekend prime time. Saturday is the lowest TV viewing night of the week. But it's the biggest night for watching VCR tapes. Saturday is also a night with far more single program viewing episodes, that is, people turn the set on to view one program and then turn the set off. People come and go erratically through the night. Flow is unusually difficult to attain on Saturday because viewing patterns are so erratic; even "like" programs have less flow potential.

Sunday is the opposite. Almost all sets are on before prime time begins. The opening seam, which in many markets is "Nature", attracts an audience surge with most of the network flow coming from CBS and "60 Minutes." At 9 p.m., when "Murder She Wrote" ends, public TV receives another audience surge from CBS.

Sunday affords public TV many targets of opportunity, given the size of the audience searching the dial. And since viewing levels are consistently high, the possibility of flow between like programs increases.

So flow potential differs, depending on the night and the program. A lot of public TV's audience comes from elsewhere. It probably wasn't a joke when one programming friend wondered whether his station's schedule couldn't best be promoted on the local CBS affiliate.

Worth the Effort?

Understanding the difficulties, should public broadcasters attempt a schedule that flows? While it is comforting for programmers to know that a large number of people sample a station once a week, development personnel probably are more enthusiastic about viewers who do more than just sample.

In order to build a relationship that results in loyalty and support for a station, a viewer must feel bonded to the station. And that act of bonding is a result, for most viewers, of a stronger dependence on the station--from more than occasional viewing. One of the best ways to determine that a viewer watches you more than once a week is by holding him or her for a second program -- thus resisting public TV's natural inclination to turn over its audience.