LIANE HANSEN, Host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Viewers have long complained about Public Broadcasting membership drives, but stations count on them as a key way to make money. Now a public TV station in Syracuse, New York says it wants to do away with on-air membership drives for good.
Matt Hackworth of member station WAER reports from Syracuse.
MATT HACKWORTH: Bob Daino says even though he's the president of WCNY Television, he's just like any other viewer.
ROBERT DAINO: I am, as a person, am not unique in that if you're watching some high quality show and it's interrupted, whatever the reason may be, you're probably not happy.
HACKWORTH: Daino says his station's viewers complain about on-air membership drives more than anything else. WCNY has gone as long as two weeks or more in some of its drives to raise the $900,000 dollars a year it needs to stay on the air. But fundraising specials featuring premiere acts, financial planners and the like, complete with long pitch breaks, may soon come to an end in Syracuse.
The non-profit purchased a for-profit television production business. Managers at WCNY hope the commercials, instructional videos, and other materials the new business will produce will make enough money to break free from membership drives.
Daino says the move is insurance against declines in membership and potential cuts in government support.
DAINO: If you think you're going to just continue to just add more pledge days and that's just going to be your hedge against the future, I think you're making a bad investment and a bad mistake for your station.
JUDITH LEROY: A lot of managers look at pledges like a Swiss Army knife, you know? You need a little money, you open up another one of the gizmos and ask for money.
HACKWORTH: Judith LeRoy is a public TV consultant who specializes in on-air fundraising. She says the amount of on-air fundraising in public TV has gone up by about 25 percent in the last five years. The amount of money brought in by membership drives has barely increased, and the number of people joining stations as members has dropped significantly.
LeRoy says she can think of only one other station, in Miami, that tried years ago to take its efforts to build revenue off the air by tapping into a business. LeRoy says that station found it couldn't make enough money, and she expects things haven't changed.
LEROY: The other thing is that many people want to be supporters of public television. In fact, in our research, people will tell us, it should be a public supported media. That's what makes it local, that's what makes it appeal to us. So there would be some detriment to getting rid of membership support, we do believe.
HACKWORTH: WCNY says it doesn't want to break its connection with members; it just wants to stop interrupting program to ask them for money. The station will keep some on-air fundraising that is actually popular with viewers, such as its regularly scheduled on-air travel auction.
Syracuse University Professor of Popular Culture Robert Thompson says public TV stations are being forced to compete with an ever-increasing menu of choices for viewers.
ROBERT THOMPSON: The bottom line is, the public broadcasting system was started in a communication environment so vastly different than the one we've got now, and it's having to adjust to all of these massive changes. I hope it does, because I still say for all the 500 channels I've now got on my fancy digital cable system, there is a lot of stuff that is only playing on PBS.
HACKWORTH: Managers at the upstate New York TV station will not abandon the old membership drive until they see how much money will come from its new TV production business. At least one more drive is scheduled to hit the airwaves in about a month, this time interrupting programming for at least two weeks.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Hackworth, in Syracuse, New York.