A problem that almost all arts organizations will face at one point (or many) is the perception that they are stodgy, elitist, high-brow entertainers for the wealthy and highly educated. This actually wasn't a problem for a long time. Organizations were happy to be associated with inaccessible artists, flirting with the wealthy elite, collecting large fundraising checks, throwing galas and balls and receptions and masquerades and jamborees and affairs. But in a time when an 8 year old can become a household name through her youtube channel, when CD quality recording is possible with your phone, when the definition of art is decided by the people and not told to them, when fundraising is turning into crowdfunding, when the President of the United States rebuffs high society balls in his own inauguration celebration - the idea that arts organizations exist in a golden circle of culture is almost laughable.
So what do we do? We turn to Downton Abbey, of course. Adaptation in changing times is a key theme of the show, and indeed will be the linchpin of survival for the great family. In a remarkable resemblance of real life and art, PBS has adapted itself from a boring, professorial, high-brow network into one of the most talked (and tweeted) about forms of entertainment. Think about it: five years ago PBS was synonymous with antiques, kid's puppets, a droll (yet informative) hour of news, nature shows, and the like. Now, it's on DVRs all across the world. Pirated seasons that are only available overseas are coveted, and the online streaming audience that PBS has garnered is huge. PBS understands a few things that we all should learn.
First - it's all about the programming. PBS didn't suddenly change it's brand, or it's logo or its mission statement. PBS still uses classical music and awkward actors to introduce the Masterpiece shows. The PBS logo is a bit shined up, but more or less the same. What they have changed, or augmented, is their programming. That's why people tune in - to watch awesome stuff. If you want to have successful fundraising, successful marketing, and generally a successful organization, you need to have great programming.
The amazing thing about Downton Abbey is that it has caused viewership to spike for PBS's other programs. People who didn't know, or forgot, about PBS are sticking around on the TV or the website to watch other things. This is the power of good programming - if you have a few home run acts, your audience will trust you to give them other great programs they may not have thought of.
Another thing PBS does well is they make their programming really accessible. They live stream on their website, which helps them keep their brand in front of consumers. They also let cable providers use their content for on-demand programming. PBS, the stuffy old public broadcasting service, has embraced new content delivery like a pro - and it's working!
The cool thing about programming and program delivery, is it makes everything else easier. It makes marketing easier (Downton practically sells itself now), it gives a huge boost to cross-promotion, it gives funders a great reason to give, and it attracts other artists/shows to your organization for future seasons. Not all arts orgs will become the cool new thing. But there's no reason not to try a little new programming to bring in a new audience.
This blog post has been brought to you by the letter P - for programming.