Home Play by Mail Upgrades to PBS Passport seen as only part of the solution to public TV’s fundraising challenges

Upgrades to PBS Passport seen as only part of the solution to public TV’s fundraising challenges


As public broadcasters face increasingly tough challenges in attracting new viewers and donors, fundraisers are turning to digital platforms as the best bet to generate membership revenue.

PBS is working on several technology upgrades to PBS Passport, its streaming service for station donors, which will begin rolling out later this year. The membership benefit, available to viewers who contribute at least $60 a year to their local PBS station, has been a boon to the growth of public television membership files, but that growth is slowing, according to an analysis presented on July 20 by Contributor Development Partnership at the Public Conference on Media Development and Marketing in Chicago.

CDP President Michal Heiplik and Daren Winckel, Senior Director of Fundraising Strategy, shared a report from July on viewership and giving trends that described the uneven results of on-air fundraising and declining first-year donor retention in 2022 at public television and radio stations. One of the reasons for the drop in public television donors, according to the CDP, is a slowdown in the growth of Passport.

After its launch in 2015, Passport has become a powerful donor acquisition tool. CDP’s presentation included data showing that members who actively use the service tend to renew at higher rates.

As viewers migrate to streaming services, station executives have pushed for upgrades to Passport. PBS will begin shipping them in the fourth quarter of 2022. During a PMDMC session on Thursday, the PBS fundraising team shared details about the improvements it is making to the viewing experience and customer service of Passport.

Passport will introduce ‘continuous play’, which nudges viewers to the next show in their queue, and a ‘keep watching’ section for members who want to easily return to their favorite shows. The closest PBS Passport comes to a “keep watching” feature is its “watch history” section, but it groups videos viewers have already watched with those that are in progress.

Additional enhancements, which will roll out in the first quarter of 2023, are a pilot run of a customer service live chat bot and a tool that will help people activate their PBS Passport account with a QR code.

Jerry Liwanag, vice president of fundraising programming for PBS, discussed Passport updates during the session while encouraging fundraisers to embrace the future.

“I think we’re at a crossroads right now,” Liwanag said during the session. “The convergence of streamers and digital broadcasters is here now and it’s changed the way people give…it’s changed the way they consume content.”

PBS continues to encourage stations to invest in digital outreach and diversify their fundraising programs through pledge campaigns, direct mail and other sources, Liwanag said. “A really exciting and…, I can imagine, daunting part is that we now have the opportunity to redefine our relationship with the next group of PBS donors and viewers, just as our predecessors did a while ago. decades old.”

Beyond the changes to Passport, Liwanag encouraged stations to re-evaluate how they promote member benefits to viewers and donors. Although a monthly support donation of $5 is the minimum donation level to access the streaming service, some station fundraisers ask donors to give more.

During CDP’s previous session on fundraising for “future-proof” public television, Deanna Mackey, managing director of KPBS in San Diego, advised stations to invest more of their resources in attracting digital audiences. Citing analysis from PBS Audience Insights, she noted projections that show there’s “no more growth in live TV among those under 65. That means your live experience will only be for people aged 65 and over”.

“That should really send fear to everyone,” Mackey added. “It’s a major, major problem.”

PBS Passport is one of the best ways to find supporting donors across multiple demographics, said Mackey, former president of public television’s Major Market Group. Stations need to shift more of their investments from live platforms to digital, she added. She recommended that stations create jobs for staff members who focus entirely on promoting Passport and interacting with existing and potential viewers.

“[PBS Passport] is where the future money is,” Mackey said. “We don’t have another way to make you money as fast as Passport.”