Station Spotlight: WHYY's #choosedownton campaign

By Kelsey Savage, PBS Interactive

With just a few days left until the weekend, the water cooler talk around our office has been decidedly focused on one issue—Sunday’s head-to-head between our beloved Downton Abbey and the Super Bowl XLVI.

WHYY is now taking this debate onto the internet and even adding a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to the argument. Their #choosedownton campaign, which started last Sunday, takes place on a variety of different social media platforms over the course of this week. While Tony Sadowski, Promotion Producer at WHYY, admits that even though Super Bowl XLVI will inevitably have more viewership, “the idea of "humble, little" PBS taking a swing at the juggernaut that is the Super Bowl really made me smile. In many ways, it is the literal polar opposite of what public television stands for.” He notes that a fair chunk of Super Bowl tune-ins come from viewers who are not regular football fans and just claim to watching it for the commercials. “Why not make a play for the sweet spot of that Venn diagram - people who aren't really emotionally invested in the game, but are into Downton?”, Sadowski questions.

In fact, much of WHYY’s campaign is about finding ways to engage new audiences that are tuning into PBS for the first time thanks to the popular Masterpiece program. By making humorous YouTube videos, Sadowski hopes to “let newcomers know that PBS isn't all stiff and buttoned-up. We have more to offer than just this series. We're not just cool once or twice a year!” Another campaign goal is just to inform PBS viewers that Downton will still be airing at 9pm, even though it might feel like the rest of television has taken a temporary pause. Lastly, Sadowski and the WHYY team are also trying to raise awareness about online streaming options for folks who decide not to watch the show live.

This is just one example of WHYY Promotions’ general shift towards a “more energetic and playful tone in our promotional efforts”. Sadowski argues that “in so many ways, public media are often trend-setters. One way to "grow down" our audience without dumbing down the content is to better sell the "coolness factor" to people who haven't been paying much attention to our TV or radio efforts, but would probably like what we have to offer.” To him, the internet is a perfect testing ground for this attitude shift because of its young, experimental and social nature. It’s also relatively inexpensive. Yet, he is also careful to note that using the internet as a promotional tool means that the content has to stand out on its own (and hopefully not for being notoriously bad). For example, he explains, “you can’t force ‘cool’ online - you can’t tell people something’s viral”.

So far, this social media effort has received positive results. Within minutes of adding their first #choosedownton post to Facebook, WHYY had users making comments like “Not even a question for me! It’s Downton all the way!” On Twitter, a handful of other PBS affiliated stations, like @WyomingPBS and @WGTEPublic, have adopted the sassy hashtag. Of course, the crux of this campaign will take place on the big day. We can’t wait to see how the internet reacts to this satirical and creative push for Downton Abbey viewership.


  1. I, for one, know exactly which I'll choose. It's Downton all the way. Plus, the Superbowl will still be on after it's over anyway.

  2. I grew up in NY, so I am going to have to go SB on this one...but I'll catch Downton on WHYY's video site!