Station Break

Quitting PBS was only the first test for KCET. The next? Staying alive

Illustration by John Ritter

In the world of public television it was nothing short of the nuclear option. After years of squabbling over how much money L.A. station KCET should pay PBS for the full complement of network programming, both sides declared an impasse, and on January 1, 2011, KCET pulled the plug on a 40-year affiliation. No more Masterpiece, Frontline, or PBS NewsHour; no more Sesame Street or Nova. All PBS shows would now be aired on Orange County’s KOCE. “The time has come to acknowledge that this relationship no longer works,” Gordon Bava, KCET’s chairman, said in a letter to PBS chief executive Paula Kerger.

The PBS honchos never thought it would come to this. Yes, there had been acrimony over membership dues, corporate grants, and network schedules, but most everyone assumed that KCET would grudgingly stay the course. Considering that nearly 80 percent of the programming came from PBS, what choice did it have? And yet once the announcement was made, station managers all over the country began keeping tabs. It became a grand experiment to see whether a major public station could actually break away from PBS’s clutches. Dan Schmidt, head of Chicago’s WTTW, told his trustees that “if KCET is able to thrive without PBS, this will be a paradigm shift for [public television], which will change our business model forever.”

But KCET isn’t thriving—it’s merely hanging on. Though the station is desperate to note that ratings have been increasing since the initial plunge in viewership, the numbers remain low. As of last fall an average of only 10,000 people were watching KCET at some point during the day, according to Nielsen; a year earlier, with PBS, the figure was 20,000. (KABC, the most watched station, had an average of 165,000 viewers.) Prime time isn’t quite as bad, due in part to the popular British dramedy Doc Martin, with viewership off 27 percent.

“It’s been a liberating year, to say the least,” says Al Jerome, chief executive of what is now the nation’s largest independent public television station. After weathering months of “what were you thinking” tirades from viewers, Jerome and his staff managed to cobble together a presentable lineup of dramas, movies, international news programs (most notably, Al Jazeera English News), travel and cooking shows, and favorites like California’s Gold and SoCal Connected. Jerome, who joined KCET in 1996 and speaks with a salesman’s polish, compares the post-PBS world to a Costco membership store after the private-label Kirkland products have been removed. “We have lots of shelf space,” he says.

Station executives like to call the new KCET a start-up, and to some extent it is. The 4.5-acre campus, which is located at the eastern end of Hollywood and has been home to studios since the early days of the movie industry, was bought last year by  the Church of Scientology. This month KCET is scheduled to move into two floors of a 14-story Burbank office tower near NBC’s studio complex. The net proceeds of that sale—about $29 million—along with a $1 million grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, will help fund the transition. Long term, the idea is to lessen the reliance on the outsourced lineup of PBS-type shows and concentrate instead on more locally oriented fare. (Even the new slogan, “Rethink TV,” is a placeholder for the future.)

What Jerome envisions is a three-hour news block, followed by a daily edition of the public affairs series SoCal Connected, followed by Huell Howser’s travel series and a mix of mostly arts programming and dramas. Several of these already have been on the air, including Open Call, a concert series hosted by mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman and featuring area orchestras in performance, and L.A. Tonight with Roy Firestone, which has the former ESPN sportscaster doing Charlie Rose-type interviews. Another new offering, Classic Cool Theater, is among the programs being developed under a deal with Encino production company Eyetronics Media & Studios.

So where will the money come from? The shows were funded only for several episodes—just to generate buzz—and it’s been tough to attract backing for extended runs. Meanwhile U.S. Bank’s sponsorship of SoCal Connected expired in October and has yet to be renewed (production has been suspended until more funding comes through). In some ways this is the hand-to-mouth conundrum that KCET has always faced—except now there’s no PBS to lean on and a number of larger contributors are antsy.

“I’d be disingenuous if I told you we weren’t disappointed,” says Fred Ali, chief executive of the Weingart Foundation, an L.A.-based nonprofit that paid for a communications center at the old headquarters containing $8 million worth of broadcast equipment—much of which will be kept by the Scientologists as part of the sale. The foundation has no plans to finance additional equipment for the new offices. In 2011, its first year of independence, KCET reported $22.3 million in revenue from contributions and grants, down from $37.6 million in 2010. While $12 million was saved in programming costs (no more worries about PBS dues), the station faces crushing financial obligations at a time when corporations continue to penny-pinch. “KCET is at a disadvantage because no one really knows what to make of them,” says Ali.

Then there’s competition from KOCE, formerly a second-tier affiliate that won the public television lottery by becoming PBS’s main outlet when KCET broke away. “I never would have dreamed that we’d be in this situation,” Mel Rogers, the station’s president, says at his office in Costa Mesa. In just three months the 38-person staff had to rebrand the station (now called PBS SoCal), rebuild the master control facilities, and arrange for placement on all cable and satellite systems in Southern California. More than a year later the benefits of being a top-tier affiliate are apparent: The second season of the hugely popular serial Downton Abbey premiered with a rating of 2.0 (that’s the percentage of all television households in the market tuned in), way ahead of KCET’s 0.5 rating for the same period. “Maybe they got it in their head that their brand was stronger than the PBS brand,” says Rogers. 

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KCET first went on the air in 1964 as an affiliate of PBS’s predecessor, National Educational Television, and has enjoyed a wide range of successes. The 13-part series Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, explored the origins of the universe and remains one of the most popular programs ever to air on public television. The nightly news show Life & Times had several iterations from 1992 to 2007, and A Place of Our Own (with its Spanish-language companion show, Los Niños en Su Casa) ambitiously focused on a largely overlooked audience: day care providers. But the station has been notorious for its slow-mo corporate culture and top-heavy management; proposals would take years to develop and frequently ended up going nowhere. (Station executives say that a senior-level restructuring has streamlined the operation.) My own experience goes back more than a decade, when I was editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal and met with station executives week after week about a proposed show on local business. Everyone agreed it was a good idea, but the money never materialized. When I recently reminded Jerome of the program, he said, “It’s still a good idea.”

Coming up with serviceable concepts has never been the problem. What hamstrung KCET over the years was the lack of production dollars and access to the PBS lineup, which has been dominated by three East Coast stations—WNET in New York, WGBH in Boston, and WETA in Washington, D.C. With longtime favorites such as Great Performances, American Experience, and Nature, the Big Three effectively blocked any path to national exposure, and with it an extra revenue stream. (Affiliates whose shows run on PBS typically receive a production or license fee.) Yet it’s easy to see why PBS has stuck with those warhorses: They’re the shows that the aging public TV audience—viewers average in their early 60s compared with 50 on the commercial networks—care the most about.

KCET’s showdown with PBS wasn’t about creative disagreements but money, specifically $50 million worth of grants for producing A Place of Our Own. In PBS’s crazy-quilt way of doing things, the more funding that a station is awarded for a specific program, the higher the membership dues. Over four years KCET’s bill went from $4.9 million a year to $7 million. “They know these dues are punitive—they just don’t change them,” says Jerome. PBS head Paula Kerger wasn’t made available for an interview, but a spokeswoman said that the “lost dues would have to be recovered from other stations, which would place an unfair financial burden on the rest of the system.” The spokeswoman also said that the station had been given “unprecedented flexibility and assistance” in making payments. KCET’s bellyaching, in other words, was not justified.

The thing is, KCET really did get ripped off, but in ways that go beyond membership dues or East Coast bias. The ultimate culprits were three other PBS affiliates in the L.A. area. Those stations—KOCE, KVCR in San Bernardino, and KLCS, which is owned by the L.A. Unified School District—had been operating as secondary affiliates, which meant they could air 25 percent of the PBS schedule as long as they waited eight days after shows were first broadcast. In return the stations were charged a fraction of what KCET had to pay. So KCET was shelling out more money and losing viewers in the process—not exactly a great deal.

Jerome approached the PBS board about turning KCET into a secondary affiliate (with much lower dues) and making one of the others the primary L.A. outlet, but the request was turned down. Then he suggested forming a consortium with the four stations and splitting the network schedule. That, too, was denied, despite a study finding that the arrangement could save money by consolidating operations. The two sides kept talking past each other—Jerome says that PBS is just a “precedent-averse organization,” noting that at one point Kerger said to him, “They’re all going to be lining up and asking for the deal that Al got.”

The folks at KOCE were not in on any of this; Rogers discovered that KCET had bailed out when several reporters called his office for comment. (The two stations, battling each other for viewers and dollars, have long had a chilly relationship.) Predictably prime time ratings skyrocketed, but now the station is stuck with higher membership dues—they’ve jumped from $1 million to $3 million—and increases in other programming costs. Rogers says he wants to expand, “except we don’t have a pile of money to throw at it. So we have to grow incrementally, and it’s terribly frustrating.” Among the challenges: establishing relationships with potential underwriters in L.A., improving sluggish daytime ratings, and stepping up local programming throughout the region.

Here’s the most unlikely development: Total public TV viewership in the L.A. area is up 6.8 percent since the KCET changeover. That’s better than the national numbers for roughly the same period—and significantly better than how several struggling markets are doing. The increase reflects television’s newfound reality: Viewers expect as much variety as possible, even on public TV. They want places to watch both Downton Abbey and Doc Martin. Whether the KCET experiment can be replicated elsewhere is anyone’s guess. Whether the station’s ratings can get back to the old PBS days is another unknown. Jerome, for all his upbeat patter, realizes that he’s on shaky ground. “Necessity is making us do the right thing,” he says. “We don’t want to be naive about it, but we’ve got to have a little bit of faith that if we build it, they will come.”