More and More, PBS Rocks Its Way to the Bank

Anyone who watches public television is familiar with its pledge drives. And PBS has always used music specials to bring in the bucks. But more and more these days, PBS is going after pledges with big rock 'n roll shows. This month, some public TV stations around the country are featuring concerts by Bruce Springsteen and Donovan.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One of the few places you might have seen Ousmane Sembene's work in this country, besides art houses, was on public television. But the more esoteric programming is usually not what keeps public TV running. Music specials featuring well-known artists are a staple of PBS pledge drives. And as the PBS audience is changing, so is the music.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: If you tuned into your local public TV station during the Spring Pledge Drive, you just might have caught Eric Burdon and the Animals wrapping up performance of "House of the Rising Sun" with this pitch for money.

Mr. ERIC BURDON (Vocalist, The Animals): All right. Don't forget. Get on the telephone. Make a call. PBS. Support public television. (Unintelligible). Yeah.

NEARY: The Animals, Petula Clark, The Zombies, and a host of other performers, whose fame peaked back in the 1960s, were all part of the "British Beat," it's the latest PBS pledge special produced by T.J. Lubinsky, a 30-something wonder kid who's made a career out of producing music specials for public TV.

It all began when Lubinsky realized he could no longer hear some of his favorite oldies on the radio.

Mr. T.J. LUBINSKY (Producer): I used to call up and I say, look, can I hear "Earth Angel" by the Penguins? Or can I hear "Since I Don't Have You" by the Skyliners? And they'd say, no, we can't play that. Well, what do you mean you can't play it? Do you need the record? I got a copy; I can drop them by the station. No, it's outside of our demographic.

NEARY: At that time, Lubinsky was still in his 20's. But unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he loved both oldies and public television, and he knew that PBS dies have the right demographics for oldies. So he combined his two passions into a winning combination for public television. His first pledge show, the "Doo Wop Special" in 1998 was a fundraising blockbuster.

(Soundbite of song "Little Girl Of Mine")

Mr. HERB COX (Lead singer, The Cleftones): (Singing) Diddelidid...

THE CLEFTONES (Group): (Singing) Diddelidid. Diddelidid. Diddelidid...

Mr. COX: (Singing) Oh little girl of mine...

THE CLEFTONES: (Singing) Diddelidid.

NEARY: Several more doo-wop specials followed. Then Lubinsky started moving through different genres and generations, from '60s rock to '70s soul and disco. Sometimes, he has to find and coax retired singers and musicians back on to the stage. And he meticulously recreates the sound their fans, now PBS viewers, fell in love with back when they were young.

Mr. LUBINSKY: That's the number one connective thread - it's taking the audience back to that moment when life was simpler, life was different. Nothing can connect people emotionally better than the music that they listen to, the music that was part of their right of passage of growing up.

NEARY: And that loving feeling is likely to get them to open their wallets. Lubinsky's production house is one of a number of independent companies that produce PBS pledge specials. And the record label Sony BMG has also gotten into the business. Sony Vice President John Vernile, who began his career in public broadcasting, says in the rapidly changing music business, PBS is a good venue for promoting the company's back catalog.

Mr. JOHN VERNILE (Vice President for Promotion of Sony Classical): You know, especially, in this day and age where we have to constantly reintroduce artists, so that people know that they exist and that this music is there.

NEARY: At first, Sony thought only classical or classical crossover acts would work on PBS, but eventually, the company saw the potential for more diverse offerings. Concert specials featuring Johnny Mathis, Chris Botti and others, went over well.

But PBS balked at first when Vernile suggested Pink Floyd for a pledge drive.

(Soundbite of song "Money")

Mr. SYD BARRETT (Lead Singer, Pink Floyd): (Singing) Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.

Mr. VERNILE: The initial reaction was if this really, kind of, appealed to a younger demographic and these are not people that generally support public TV. But I had a really strong feeling about it, because I grew up with it, you know, I'm of that age and I know that that's something I wanted to see.

NEARY: Vernile prevailed and the Pink Floyd got made. Vernile says it got off to a slow start but eventually caught on in some markets. The question is: who exactly is PBS trying to reach?

Mr. JOHN WILSON (Senior Vice President of Programming, PBS): It would be easy to say, O Boomers is who we're looking at. But the fact of the matter is I'm not that fuzzy. You want to pledge PBS? I'll take it.

NEARY: John Wilson is the senior vice president of programming at PBS. He says the specials that work best are the ones that make the strongest emotional connection with the audience.

Mr. WILSON: You'd look at the audience in terms of when they're willing and able to support a cause like public broadcasting. And so you can, sort of, look at when they hit that point and that stage in their life and then look back at when where they 14, and just keep rolling forward with it. We're now pledging The Clash, just to give you a sense of where we're at on the timeline.

NEARY: Did he say The Clash? The punk rock group?

(Soundbite of song "Should I Stay or Should I Go")

NEARY: Yup. He did. Coming soon to a PBS station near you. And don't forget to give.

(Soundbite of song "Should I Stay or Should I Go")

Mr. JOE STRUMMER (Lead Singer, The Clash): (Singing) Should I stay or should I go?

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song "Should I Stay or Should I Go")

Mr. STRUMMER: (Singing) If you say that you are mine, I'll be here 'til the end of time. Come on and let me know, should I stay I stay or should I go?

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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