The Curse of the PBS Tchotchkes

Okay, I know I owe everyone a better explanation for the changes at the public media company in Anchorage, where I’ve taken on a new role. I’ll get to that. But first I have to let off some steam.

Now that I’m in charge of radio, television and the web — as a singular unit we call “streams” — I’m the recipient of public TV promotional materials. And let me tell you, this is the worst part of the job.

I’m being buried alive in tchotchkes. OMG the tchotckes! In two weeks I’ve been inundated with the stuff.

Now I know why our PBS dues go up so dramatically every year. The networks, the producers, the distributors — they’re all mailing and shipping out endless streams of expensive trinkets and doodads in the hopes that I’ll love their program and run it day and night and promote it and call it George.

As Jon Stewart said during his infamous appearance on CNN’s now-dead “Crossfire” — Please. Stop. You’re hurting America.

Okay, maybe not hurting America, but you’re filling my office with stuff I don’t need.  We don’t select programs because you send me a chocolate bar or children’s bookends.  I’m not going to be a new-found fan of your show because you printed a four-color professional multi-tabbed binder or sent me “fun” stickers or magnets.  Put another way: Your ability to slap a logo on a plastic Chinese toy or hire a print shop does not impress me — it depresses me.

Please, TV producers and distributors: Put your money into making a better product. Edit tighter. Get better visuals in the program. Hire good photographers and videographers and sound engineers. Build a better web site. Collaborate with your public TV brethren and create a wonderful online-only marketplace for programs and additional information.

Most importantly: please lower my cost for buying your show.

Please do not send me a box of glossy postcards pushing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. No more Good Grips spatulas or basting gear for that cooking show. Save the four-color promo stuff for lobbying Congress — not me. Keep the DVDs and put your show clips and previews online.  I’m already on your team, so please don’t waste $25 shipping me your latest professionally-developed marketing pouch with tiered inserts on velvety cardstock ($25 x 300 stations = $7,500).

Why is it that a network of stations, all committed to noncommercial public service, spends this much money on advertising to me?

2 thoughts on “The Curse of the PBS Tchotchkes

  1. John,

    As a program syndicator/distributor I understand your frustration with the small industry that has sprung up creating the plastic crap that either fills tote bags at conferences or your post office box. I get more than a dozen catalogs each year from these companies. The programming I market and distribute to both PBS and NPR stations is from a a major European public broadcaster – and if you ever want to see a closet full of the most bizarre Tchotckes, you should check out what they have been shipping me – everything from Sewing kits to little brushes to clean out the lint in your keyboard. I finally sent them an email last year asking them to stop sending me boxes of this stuff. But one of their items, has been handy. It’s a 1GB flash drive which we’ve been filling up with MP4 video samples (or mp3 for radio) and handing out at conferences (we’ll be at PRPD in September).
    After reading your post, however, I do have some questions — I have to disagree with your point that if we just produce great content, stations will flock to our programming. My client has been making available some truly great content available to PBS stations and NPR stations for many years, (and it’s free) but has dedicated very little money to promotion., and while it’s major weekly series, European Journal does get some great carriage, there are other equally good daily and weekly news and feature programs that get very little carriage. This especially the case with radio. With limited budgets, what’s the best way to communicate what’s available without resorting to frisbies, note pads, or chocolate bars in the shape of the Brandenburg Gate?
    Despite spending money for ads in Current, sending out postcards, and exhibiting at the major conferences, there are still many PD’s who aren’t even aware that Deutsche Welle programming (which is always free content) exists.
    If there were 3 things you would recommend to program promoters who want you to take 10 minutes to view a program sample, what would they be.

  2. Greg — The flash drives make a ton of sense to me. It’s a way to get video (or audio) directly into the hands of programming decision-makers, and it’s faster to see the video that way than to stream it online.

    It’s funny that you mention Deutsche Welle — we were about to hire a reporter and she dropped us to take a 6-month gig with DW. Not fair! 😉

    What you’re really up against is the 24×7 schedule and the fact that if you buy into the NPR and PRI deals, there’s so much great content you literally can’t air it all anyway. Plus there’s the provincialism of programming (US vs. “foreign”) and the fact that most stations have access to the BBC. You’ve got one tough job there.

    So in some ways, it almost doesn’t matter whether you can get me to listen to your programming in the first place. Even if I think it’s good, I’d have to take something away that will upset someone and put on something “foreign” that will raise some questions for some listeners/viewers.

    Plus, programming in U.S. public media seems to be selected in a “pack” mentality — I’ll run this or that because everyone else is. And experimentation these days, with budgets tight and fear of change running high, is a lost art. Most of the folks running public media in this country are in the late stages of their careers and are trying to safely coast to retirement. You won’t get far with that kind of demographic.

    For me personally (and I can’t speak for other PDs because I’m new to the game and don’t know those folks terribly well), here are some things that could get my attention:

    1. You commenting on my blog! Sounds like a joke, but it’s not. We’ve just made a personal connection using a communication channel I care about. That’s meaningful. Now if a DW flash drive or DVD or whatever shows up, and it’s from you, I’ll pay more attention, I’ll give it real thought. Other programs or distributors won’t get the time of day from me. So you’ve broken through with me. I’m unusual in that respect, but still — catching people on Facebook or through their web sites might work, if the contact is genuine, human-scaled, and not setup as a sales contact.

    2. The flash drive idea would catch my interest, right off. That is, however, assuming that you’re in the minority, not the majority. If my mailbox starts filling up with flash drives, then you’re one of the many and I may not pay much attention. For now, the flash drive would get my attention, even not knowing you.

    3. Here’s a tough one… Somehow get your content in front of PDs at a conference. Not through a vendor booth, however — I generally avoid those. But if you or one of your “stars” ended up on a panel or gave a presentation that gave you a chance to share/showcase your content in a non-sales-pitch way, I’d pay attention then and might look into your content later. Getting onto the conference docket could be tough. And you won’t be seen by everyone there. But with a few influential trend-setting stations in the industry, you might just get somewhere.

    I’m sure there are other ideas, too. But I gotta tell ya, #1 is my first choice. It’s hard to find ways to connect with people, in general, but if you can, that’s where it really begins. Indeed, I’m going to head out to the web after leaving this comment to look for DW’s stuff.

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