How PBS Used Binge Watching to Pull In More Than 33 Million Viewers

Oct 22, 2014  •  Post A Comment

PBS took the binge-watching bull by the horns, using the phenomenon to bring in a huge audience for its Ken Burns documentary series “The Roosevelts,” Brian Steinberg writes in Variety.

“PBS appears to have cracked the nut on getting people to do it with a TV network more firmly in control of the process,” Steinberg writes. “PBS’s recent broadcast of ‘The Roosevelts,’ an epic 14-hour series, reached more than 33.3 million viewers who tuned in to local PBS stations to watch the Ken Burns-helmed series, according to Nielsen live-plus-seven data released Wednesday by the network. The numbers are surprising because PBS ran the series in prime time over seven consecutive nights, from Sunday, Sept. 14, to Saturday, Sept. 20, demanding a significant time commitment from viewers.”

The report cites top PBS programming exec Beth Hoppe saying the numbers are “unheard of” for a documentary series in this fragmented TV era, with PBS normally attracting its biggest crowds for drama series. PBS execs, Steinberg notes, say the availability on digital platforms such as Roku and on the Internet contributed to the turnout.

Said Hoppe: “It looks like it was largely catch-up. Few people tried to jump ahead and often came back into the broadcast.” She attributed the pattern in part to the community aspect of the event as it aired on PBS stations.

“The average audience for all seven episodes of ‘The Roosevelts’ was 9.2 million, making the series the third highest-rated Ken Burns program on PBS following 1990’s ‘The Civil War’ and 1997’s ‘Lewis and Clark’ — and both of those series aired at a time when PBS had fewer competitors,” Steinberg writes.

Burns is quoted in the report saying: “I think it’s a real validation of long-form video. It is said of the American people that they have the attention span of a gnat, that they are not interested in a fairly complex narrative over a long period of time, and this experiment worked — in the midst of a new fall season, you can run a program over seven straight nights and get the viewers to follow you.”

PBS said it notched its most-watched week in 20 years for the week when episodes two through seven of “The Roosevelts” aired — the most since episodes two through six of “Baseball” aired back in 1994.

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