BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
If you could watch public TV programs without pledge breaks, would you give more generously to the station?
WCET-TV, Channel 48, hopes to find out exactly that when it starts a one-year experiment with a "pledge-free" cable feed to about 600 suburban Time Warner Cable customers next month.
Public TV executives will be watching the Cincinnati test, which begins during July 10-12 telecasts of The Three Tenors concert from the 1998 World Cup in Paris.
"Everybody is interested in this because it strikes at the heart of what we all know is an irritant -- pledge breaks," says C. Scott Elliott, Channel 48 senior vice president and station manager. "All public station managers and programmers would like NOT to do pledge breaks. We're all interested in finding an alternative," he says.
Station got a grant
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels federal funds to the Public Broadcasting Service and its affiliates, gave WCET-TV a $200,000 grant for the national pilot program in May 1997. Originally CPB and Channel 48 planned for more than 1,000 families in several major cities to participate in the experiment, which has since been limited to Greater Cincinnati.
Pledge-free programs will be offered to about 600 select homes -- people who are both Channel 48 members and Time Warner subscribers in ZIP codes 45242 (Blue Ash - Montgomery) and 45243 (Madeira - Indian Hill - Kenwood).
Sorry, no volunteers from outside those areas will be accepted for the trial -- no matter how much they're willing to pay.
"I've literally had people pull out their checkbook and offer to sign up for this on the spot when I've described this," Mr. Elliott says. "But the test group has been pre-selected. This is a very limited test."
In recent weeks, potential participants have been contacted by a New Jersey research firm and asked about their viewing habits. They will be called again later this month and asked if they would like to participate in the experiment.
The first pledge-free programming will be offered for The Three Tenors Live in Concert -- Paris 1998 at 10 p.m. July 10, 8 p.m. July 11 and 6 p.m. July 12. It is the first joint concert by Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti since the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles.
For one year, the test homes will get the same shows broadcast by Channel 48, uninterrupted by pleas for cash. (Most of WCET's 60 pledge days are scheduled in August, December and March.) The donations from the test subjects will be measured against their previous donations and against donations from the station's other subscribers.
Several issues must be worked out in the next four weeks:
What will the test group see between shows, because the pledge-free cable programs will end sooner than Channel 48 telecasts? How will the test group be told about compact discs, videos, books and other premiums offered to members during pledge breaks? "We'll kind of feel our way through this as we go this year," Mr. Elliott says.
Most of the $200,000 will be spent on research through the fall of 1999, while WCET tracks renewals and other financial contributions from the pledge-free families.
"We'll want to know if they're watching it (pledge-free cable). If they think it's good or bad. Or if they're watching the pledge breaks anyway," Mr. Elliott says.
"We need to find out: If people aren't watching pledge breaks, are they less likely to give us additional gifts?
"There has to be some return for us to bother doing this (again)," he says. "What I think we're going to come out of this with is more questions."
Channel 48 proposed the trial five years ago to CPB, the private nonprofit corporation created by Congress to develop public TV, radio and online services. The funding came through last year after CPB discussed the project with legislative leaders.
"There's a tremendous amount of interest in this. CPB really wants to get some answers. It wants to make sure the results can be replicated in other markets," Mr. Elliott says.
Nobody likes pledge breaks, particularly the loyal and generous Channel 48 members abused most by the interruptions.
"We have heard again and again and again, that people would give more money if they didn't have to watch pledge breaks," he says.
"So we are going to measure actual behavior -- which sometimes is very different than what people say."
In other words: The bottom line will be the bottom line.
John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.