Here’s a fact that may increase your faith in Americans’ viewing habits: PBS is the only broadcast network that is steady in the key 18-49 demographic, up in total viewers and up dramatically in viewers 18-34.
Yes: Even as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are down, a public television network’s ratings are up with a mix of Shakespeare, one of Emmy voters’ favorite period dramas, and programs that teach kids to do math.
PBS can thank that Emmy favorite, “Downton Abbey,” and an autotuned Mr. Rogers. And maybe even Mitt Romney, whose call to end PBS’s funding last year made the Twitter generation rally around Big Bird.
PBS wraps up the Television Critics Association press tour Wednesday in a unique position among broadcasters: It doesn’t need to make excuses. Since last fall, the traditional Big 4 networks are all down in the key 18-49 demographic, and all but CBS are down in total viewers. (CBS is up very slightly.)
More remarkably, PBS is up with elusive 18-34 viewers. CBS gained 3 percent with the demo, but other broadcasters are down, even CW, which specifically targets young adults. PBS is up a whopping 18 percent.
The public network is landing young adults at a time when other networks aren’t sure where they’re hiding. The CW believes they are jettisoning television for online viewing, and has set up deals with Netflix as a result. CBS gave a TCA presentation that said younger viewers weren’t as important as they used to be, because they increasingly live at home.
For PBS, young adults have sometimes been a “lost generation,” Jason Seiken, the network’s general manager of digital, said. Children watch “Sesame Street” to learn to read, count and be nice. Then they disappear until middle-age, when they learn to appreciate “Masterpiece Theater,” “Frontline” documentaries and nature shows.
But now more viewers are finding PBS as young adults. There is a caveat: PBS has far fewer total viewers than the other networks, so even minor increases in actual viewers can register as big ones in terms of percentage gains. PBS averaged 2.1 million total viewers last season. That puts it ahead of CW, but it has about a third as many as the least-watched Big 4 networks.
“The numbers are smaller, but it’s a trend,” PBS president Paula Kerger told TheWrap.
More impressively: PBS is making gains without dumbing down.
It is trying to reclaim the educational mantle from cable networks like Discovery, History and TLC, which have moved toward reality shows and scripted dramas. One PBS affiliate, WNET, has an ad campaign that belittles reality shows with ads for fake series like “The Tanners,” about feuding, sunbaked suburbanites.
She said other networks’ shifts have left “big holes” for PBS to fill. They also helped get PBS win back chief programming executive Beth Hoppe from the realm of commercial TV.
When Kerger asked her to return to the network in 2011, Hoppe was making a science show for Discovery and had been asked “to move to L.A. to add sex and celebrities to my science project.”
“That was the last straw,” said Kerger. “I got her at just the right moment.”
“The timing was perfect,” Hoppe confirmed.
Rivals privately grumble that PBS’s scripted hit, not shows like “Nova,” deserve the credit for its growth. Kerger says “Downton” isn’t the only factor, and that the British import continues a PBS tradition of great period dramas.
“Obviously eight hours of programming is not going to change the ratings for an entire year,” she said.
But she says the influence of “Downton” is undeniable: Besides being PBS’s best-rated series, it is also the only broadcast show to crack the Emmys’ Outstanding Drama Series category for the past two years.
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PBS also owes Mitt Romney a publicly funded bouquet for the free publicity he provided last year. When he said in the first presidential debate that he would cut federal funding for the network, Twitter exploded in its defense.
“People had such a visceral reaction,” said Kerger. “It was helpful. People have not only their own opinions about public broadcasting, we have a place in people’s hearts. The comments he made did have a positive impact. Not that I go looking for those kinds of impacts.”
PBS has also learned to hone social media without help from presidential candidates. Eighteen months ago, it launched PBS Digital Studios, which mixes “PBS quality with YouTube’s sensibility,” said Seiken. The studio commission “The Garden of Your Mind,” an autotuned song by Mr. Rogers that has been viewed more than 9 million times, and inspired a slew of other PBS remixes.
Because it doesn’t have the burden of selling ads, PBS tries to put as much content as possible online, said Seikin. Besides YouTube videos, it has also made its shows available on Netflix and Amazon.
“It seems to act as a marketing tool for us to drive more television tune-in,” he said.
Those tuning in will find that “Masterpiece Theater” now means “Downton Abbey.” “Frontline” is covering of-the-moment subjects like the danger of football injuries. A new documentary, “Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey,” recounts how the rock band Journey found its new singer, an unknown from the Philippines.
Those shows come in addition to PBS’s revered children’s programming, anchored by “Sesame Street.” New shows include “Peg & Cat,” a series designed to teach girls about math. Studies show that girls begin to feel disengaged from the subject as early as elementary school, leading to a gender gap in sciences.
Does PBS worry that it may turn off older adults while reaching out to younger ones? Not at all, said Seiken. None of the public station’s pledge drives have come up light because of people who called blasphemy on the autotuned Mr. Rogers.
Even Fred Rogers’ widow approved, he said.
“She said Fred would have loved it,” said Seiken. “He had a very whimsical side to him and he would have loved it.”
Watch Mr. Rogers remixed: