With Mr. Rogers Twitch Marathon, PBS Faces Public Television's Cloudy Future

Won't you be my neighbor in this new TV landscape?

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Jun 21 2017, 4:00pm

All images courtesy of PBS/Fred Rogers Foundation

Fred Rogers had an energy unique in children's television. On other children's shows, the human cast were always second string to the puppets, but Rogers could hold you with presence alone. The reason why is simple. Somehow, this wizard in a cardigan could reach across the airways and make you feel loved. In a way, you were the star of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—yes, Fred Rogers was on the screen and in the title, but he was doing this for you. He gifted you with his time and attention, so you could learn what to do with the mad that you feel, and that people who are bad today can choose to be good tomorrow.

Recently I tuned into Twitch's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood marathon, and once again gave into Rogers' oh-so-pleasant mesmerism. But the marathon is more than a feel-good nostalgia trip, it's an experimental fundraising campaign to see if PBS can expand its donor base to a younger, more tech-oriented audience.

The timing is particularly interesting. With the Trump administration's budget threatening to close the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the video of Fred Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969 has once again begun circulating on social media. Though both PBS and Twitch insist that the marathon's timing is a coincidence, it offers a window into the reality of PBS funding—a public-private partnership that not only has to convince Congress that it's worthy of support, but also get creative in convincing the public to keep it afloat.

But PBS wasn't the one who proposed the marathon—Twitch did.

"We chose Mister Rogers specifically because he was a major proponent of inclusivity and positivity, which is aligned with our own company values," says Bill Moorier, the head of Twitch Creative. "We felt it was a good opportunity to spotlight the brilliance of Fred Rogers, while giving something back to the network that made his show possible."

For Twitch, the marathon made sense. They'd previously run a number of PBS-centered marathons, displaying public broadcasting classics like Carl Sagan's Cosmos, The French Chef with Julia Child, and The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. According to Moorier, these programs all have something in common—a certain universality that makes them ideal for Twitch's platform, which encourages users to interact while viewing. PBS, it turns out, was happy to oblige.

"When Twitch approached us with the idea of doing something with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, we were excited to partner with them on it to engage new audiences and support PBS stations," says Lesli Rotenberg, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Children's Media and Education division at PBS. "Twitch has been a great partner in developing this unique marathon and experimental fundraiser to support our nearly 350 stations."

The fundraising effort wasn't incidental, it was a fully-integrated part of the viewing experience. A funding bar sat beneath the
Mister Rogers stream, tracking donation totals and benchmark progress. That formula raised $42,165 over the course of the marathon. This financial support will go to a very specific location too—not the national PBS organization, but directly to local PBS stations. When donating, viewers had the option to be matched automatically via location or choose their station from a drop-down menu. It's something new: an international funding campaign with local beneficiaries. Once distributed, the money will supplement the funds local stations receive from the federal government.

"The Twitch marathon is an experiment in piloting new ways for PBS and partners to collaborate in support of local stations," says Rotenberg.

It's experimental for a number of reasons, but perhaps the largest difference is the demographic being targeted. In 2013, the average age of a PBS donor was 69, and nearly 60% of donations come from women. Meanwhile, Twitch's own numbers claim that their viewers are 75% male, with 73% between the ages of 18-49. In 2013, the average age of a Twitch viewer was 21. It's an enormous audience that traditional fundraising drives miss.

"We are always seeking new ways to engage viewers with PBS stations and content," says Rotenberg, pointing out that PBS has made a major push to make its shows available online. "The Mister Rogers' Neighborhood marathon is a unique campaign that we hope will reach a new audience and encourage them to support their local stations."

And according to Bill Moorier, it's a community that's passionate about supporting public media. When Moorier reached out to Twitch streamers to see if any would want to tape inter-episode segments about what public broadcasting means to them, they got an overwhelming response

. During the marathon, the site reached out to its community to call in and leave messages about how PBS affected them.

Warning: the results are tear-jerking.

"Our community is very passionate when it comes to speaking out about things that they care about," says Moorier. "Especially if it's socially conscious in nature. They were excited to take part in promoting the show."

According to Rotenberg, supporting local PBS stations is extremely important for the mission of public broadcasting. "According to Nielsen," she says, "PBS stations reach more kids aged 2-5, more mothers of children under 6 years old, and more children in low-income homes than any other kids TV network." She points out that local stations are especially important in rural and underserved communities, where children might not have access to preschool, books, computers, broadband internet, or cable. "But they do have access to a television."

Moorier agrees, saying that the educational mission of public broadcasting was a major part of why Twitch decided to use the marathon as a fundraising effort.

"We are raising money for PBS because they have been responsible for providing free access to some of the best educational content available," he says. "That would not have been possible if not for outside funding."

But that social mission has become a hot topic politically. Back in March, news leaked that the Trump administration would try to eliminate education and culture programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The timing of the marathon, along with the fact that the marathon began with Rogers' famous 1969 testimony, begs the question of whether this is an intentional reminder of the good PBS has done.

" Mister Rogers was already on our wish list, so it wasn't done as a reaction to current politics," says Moorier. "But we love that it raises awareness of the importance of public broadcasting."
"His famous testimony is a powerful reminder of his legacy, dedication and approach to social-emotional learning, which continues to inspire all of our children's programming today," says Rotenberg. "It is also a reminder of the value that PBS stations bring to families across the country."

At this point, it's important to note that even if viewers didn't grow up in a rural or underserved community, PBS viewers have nationally benefitted from strong funding at local stations. PBS isn't a top-down organization—it's a network of regional nodes. Stations serve the local community, but they also can act as a hothouse for talent that's later picked up nationally.

Every PBS show Twitch has featured was originally connected with a local PBS station. Los Angeles affiliate KCET produced Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Bob Ross' The Joy of Painting got its start at WNVC in Falls Church, Virginia. The French Chef first taped at WGBH Boston. Mister Rogers Neighborhood itself premiered on WQED in Pittsburgh. Funding a local station doesn't just benefit a local community, it opens the door for the next Fred Rogers or Bob Ross to cut their teeth and get noticed.

For every $1 from the federal government, local stations raise $6 via state and local grants, donations from businesses, university and philanthropic support, and contributions from Viewers Like You.

But if CPB funding gets eliminated, it's exactly these local stations who will suffer the most. The CPB distributes federal funds to local stations to cover basic costs and as "seed money" to help develop programs and seek other funding. For every $1 from the federal government,
local stations raise $6 via state and local grants, donations from businesses, university and philanthropic support, and contributions from Viewers Like You. In rural or underserved areas where donations are harder to come by, that "seed money" might constitute 45-50% of a station's budget.

But this ongoing partnership with Twitch and push to get more PBS content online raises an interesting prospect: if the worst happens and funding gets eliminated, could PBS use online platforms to distribute content or keep legacy programs like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on the air?

"It's definitely an interesting concept that we would be open to discussing if that happens," says Moorier. "But there is a big difference between running a marathon for a show and becoming a larger form of network."

Rotenberg, for her part, plays down the idea: "We are steadfastly focused on federal funding, because it is simply irreplaceable." She repeats how crucial local stations are to lower income and rural populations, which are more likely to have a television than a computer and broadband internet. And that's true. In 2015 Pew found that only 67% of Americans have broadband access at home, while about 68% have a smartphone. By contrast, Nielsen's 2016 data suggests 96% of households can receive TV signals.

But Twitch, and Moorier, are keeping the door open to the possibility of further partnerships with public broadcasting.

"We haven't mapped out any additional content beyond Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," he says, "but given their great catalogue and our love of their network, anything is possible down the road."