Donald K. Boswell is a big fan of reality TV. Oh, the president of local broadcasting in Western New York wouldn’t be caught dead watching “Survivor,” “The Bachelor” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
He’s a fan of reality TV because it drives more viewers to WNED-TV.
“People want substance, there’s only so much reality TV they can take,” said Boswell. “The audience that is growing for us really doesn’t like reality television. I thank the networks every day. I hope they continue reality programs.”
Many Western New Yorkers might be surprised to learn that the local PBS affiliate is No. 6 nationally (not counting the Toronto audience) in ratings among public broadcasting stations in metered markets, ahead of big cities like Chicago (12), San Francisco (20), New York City (23) and Boston (29). It helps that Western New York is an older community, since PBS programs often appeal to that demographic.
This certainly is a great week and month for PBS and WNED.
At 3:30 this afternoon, the station repeats “Barbra Streisand, Back to Brooklyn” that premiered two nights ago on “Great Performances.” At 9 tonight and 8 p.m. Dec. 18, it airs a special “Return to Downton Abbey,” preparing viewers for the next season on Jan. 5 as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deals with life without her beloved Matthew. On Dec. 27, it airs the “American Masters” portrait of Marvin Hamlisch, the late guest conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Those are must-see TV series here, especially “Downton.” The British historical soap opera that is part of Masterpiece Theater is WNED’s highest-rated program, generating ratings in the neighborhood of Sunday night network hits “The Good Wife” and “Revenge.”
The public station’s second most popular program is “Antiques Roadshow,” which isn’t that surprising because antiques are so popular here.
WNED also produces many programs – local and national – and several received equal or significantly better ratings in prime time than normal for PBS. Plans are in the works for a project produced by WNED on Western New York’s waterways called “If Our Water Could Talk,” which will be a TV documentary with radio, social media and Web components, and include a forum with a studio audience. “We want to do more investigative sort of journalism,” said Boswell.
There also is a 60-minute national program being produced for PBS for this spring on the Olmsted Park System that includes a 30-minute companion program focusing on the local park system.
WNED also is developing a project on how to improve the educational systems, primarily in Buffalo, that is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The educational program, which is primarily for radio, starts in January.
“The real idea is not that we have solutions but how do we raise the visibility of the issues,” Boswell said. He added the project will include bringing in national experts to explain how to do things differently or why they are the way they are.
For all of WNED’s strengths, it is not immune to criticism. The chief complaints are that it programs more for the Toronto audience than Western New York, it pitches for money too often and it messes with PBS’ regular schedule too often. Boswell notes that the Canadian market supplies 70 percent of the station’s membership and Buffalo only 30 percent. The Toronto market is five times the size of Buffalo, so Boswell would expect the disparity to be even greater.
Still, the low membership figures in Buffalo frustrate Boswell. Boswell said only 6 percent of Western New Yorkers who watch the channel in a week become paying members, while the national average is about 8 percent. Fortunately, those who sign up to be members give more than they used to give.
“If you ask me what frustrates me and keeps me up at night is how can you be the sixth most-watched station in America and you’re not even performing at the national average for people to become members?” said Boswell.
“Some of it is misunderstanding. People think we get more government funding than we do. There also is a ‘someone else will do it’ attitude.”
With those figures, you might expect WNED would have more membership pitches than in other markets. As hard as it may be for some viewers to believe, Boswell said the station is in the lowest third of minutes on air for fundraising.
“We feel there is a point where you can turn people off,” said Boswell. “Before I got here, the station led the nation in fundraising minutes.”
He added that the amount of time WNED pre-empts the national PBS schedule – about 30 percent – isn’t any more than most affiliates outside of the big markets. He adds that is a good reason for the pre-emptions: “We’re much more aware of things that happen here that will take away audiences from national programs.”
He isn’t concerned that viewers will head to the PBS website to watch programs that are delayed here. “We haven’t seen it with our audience being older,” said Boswell. “That audience stays with us.”
The Frontline special, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” aired on WNED a week later than it aired nationally and was the topic of national talk shows for days before WNED viewers got to see it. I was very critical of the delay. But Boswell said it worked. “We had more viewership than the Top 10 markets that aired it as scheduled,” said Boswell.
“Denial” had a 1.8 rating here, a 1.1 nationally. But since Buffalo is one of 32 markets with NFL teams, you might have expected it to do somewhat better here.
There is no denying that Boswell has the statistics to play defense against critics better than the Bills have in recent seasons. However, he probably realizes that perception can be reality.
The reality is WNED is a strong local player that has won the hearts and minds of many area residents and just needs to win more of what is in their wallets.