CPB, its consultant and others see reshaping of four-station L.A. market as overdue transition

Other stations like the plan so much, they say it’s theirs

By Dru Sefton

A consultant’s study of public TV’s crowded Los Angeles market, commissioned by CPB, predicts a highly integrated collaboration among the area’s four stations would provide hefty financial savings and grow revenues for all four.

The eight-week study by Booz & Co. — a major consulting firm spun off by Booz Allen Hamilton — said the present structure of the market has stunted the four stations. They’ve suffered a 10 percent revenue decline since 2005 and a 26 percent drop in net assets since 2007.

All have average audiences below the PBS national average rating of 1.1 percent. San Bernardino’s KVCR averages 0.1.

Four players

KCET Licensed to nonprofit. Largest in market by far. Has had sporadic successes in production for PBS, but its ambition to become a major national producer has been repeatedly frustrated despite (or because of) it’s in L.A. Audience potential limited by UHF channel, like other pubTV oulets in the area.

KOCE: Based in Orange County but broadcasts to larger region from Mount Wilson, like KCET and KLCS. Spun off to nonprofit by a community college district several years ago. Pushes hard to raise funds, pledging 1000+ hours a year, says Booz report.

KVCR: Licensed to San Bernardino community college district. Recently announced national Native American channel backed by local tribe with busy casino.

KLCS: Licensed to Los Angeles school district, carries largely instructional and PBS Kids programs.

All but KOCE lag in fundraising, converting smaller percentages of their viewers into members than average for their category — full-member or PDP stations in multistation markets. That’s the bad news.

The report sees a better alternative future — a four-way coalition organized for effectiveness that could consolidate fundraising, coordinate pledge drives and raise an additional $9.1 million a year, Booz estimates. The stations also could cut $3.4 million in costs and more than double their local program production.

KCET’s faceoff with PBS may cause discomfort, audience analyst David LeRoy said, but public TV needs executives willing to shake things up and overcome perpetual problems. “If we have a system of managers who are nice people, who are ‘nudgers’ and not revolutionaries, that works fine if the building is not on fire,” he said. “I’m not saying the building is on fire, but we’ve sure got some smoke.”

The proposed collaboration could “position the four stations and their boards as role models for public broadcasting and media overall,” the Booz study said.

“It’s a very logical idea,” said Mark Erstling, CPB’s senior v.p. for station development, who admitted to burning “a lot of frequent-flier miles” facilitating talks among the four station CEOs. “Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities on the world, it’s the second-largest media market. Four stations working together to serve that market and its diversity can be far more effective than four functioning individually.”

Heads of the three present PDP stations are every bit as positive about the scenario as the consultants. That’s all the more amazing because they’ve struggled in such a tense and tangled overlap for so long. Hollywood-based KCET, the biggest in the quartet by far, has more members in Orange County than Orange County-based KOCE. Three of the four stations transmit from Mount Wilson, reaching most households in Los Angeles and Orange counties. All four tend to choose programs with the highest ratings, exacerbating the effects of overlap.

Despite their competitive history, the four execs are excited about their future and claim the idea as their own:

  • Larry Ciecalone, president of KVCR, said he met with his pubTV counterparts upon his arrival about six years ago. “I said, ‘What we should look at is collaboration. Then we could develop the biggest, baddest public TV network in the country’.” No one was interested at that time, he said.
  • “I’ve been proposing this for years,” said Mel Rogers, g.m. of KOCE. “Tough times bring more people on board. The fact of the matter is, you have to have everybody willing to tango, but we hadn’t had that. Now we do.”
  • And Jerome said he “recruited the other stations to explore the idea of all four collaborating.”

But all agree that this consortium has to succeed.

“It’s an extremely exciting venture,” Ciecalone said. With the stations airing complementary schedules, “frankly, the big winner is the viewing audience. We want to compete for eyeballs against the commercial guys. This way, our audience has the opportunity to flip through several public TV stations.” More chances to catch viewers.

“My [school district] superintendent communicated to me and the board that he is extremely interested in the possible revenue-generating opportunities and collaborative fundraising efforts,” said Janalyn Glymph, g.m. of KLCS-TV. Even beyond that, “the progress that all the stations have made, just to be able to pick up the phone and call each other — that’s irreversible. And that’s a really good thing.”

Rogers said he can see benefits in “strategically scheduling content and cross-promoting. Maybe we could have a website clearinghouse for all the content in the market, how to find shows on which stations. We can say, if you miss this program on KCET, you can find it at this time on KOCE, and next Saturday on another station.”

Ciecalone quipped, “There’s gotta be something good to come out of this economy — this might as well be it.”

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Overlap stations across the country try (unsuccessfully, it will turn out) for their own primetime programs from PBS, 1998.

Heeding complaints from KCET and other primary stations, PBS requires smaller PDP stations to pay extra for pledge specials or air them later than normal, 2009.

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