A year after KCET left PBS

PubTV in L.A. not yet a case of win-win-win-win

By Elizabeth Jensen

With three L.A. stations instead of four, and some viewers left behind at KCET, PBS is placing ads to remind parents that PBS Kids now hang out at Channel 50.1 (Ad: courtesy of PBS.)

When KCET announced in October 2010 that it would quit PBS after four decades as its primary Los Angeles affiliate, the task facing PBS was enormous: Find a local outlet to step into the breach, establish new branding, arrange for cable carriage, find homes for orphaned shows, and, most importantly, change long-term tuning habits so 16 million-plus potential viewers could find their favorite programs. All in less than three months.

The outlet that stepped up was Orange County’s KOCE, a second-string station still recovering from a costly, drawn-out legal battle with religious programmer Daystar Television Network several years earlier.

KOCE became PBS SoCal and, with extensive effort and CPB aid, the PBS program schedule began broadcasts on a new channel Jan. 1.

But nearly a year into the new reality, it’s clear that the changeover has not been without complications. PBS’s L.A. audience numbers had already been falling steeply for five years before the switch — down 40 percent in average primetime households, according to KCET — and the decline has continued in 2011. While primetime ratings are creeping back up, the ratings for children’s programs haven’t, so PBS began a rare paid ad campaign last month to promote tune-in.

Meanwhile, the area’s three remaining PBS stations have had limited success remaking themselves as a collaborative team instead of a scrum of jostling competitors. The much-heralded effort has helped ratings at two of the three stations; the third lost significant ground. The stations began by cross-promoting  each others’ offerings, but the practice was put on hold because PBS SoCal found it was confusing viewers.

SoCal weak spot: los niños

PBS SoCal has made enormous audience gains — especially in October, when its primetime viewership neared or equaled the levels of then-primary KCET a year earlier. But for the first 11 months of the year, PBS SoCal’s average primetime audience was 13 percent behind where KCET was for the same period in 2010. (This comparison is based on Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings, which include viewers’ same-day playback of shows they recorded.)

Total day averages, which include kids’ shows, reveal a much more challenging situation: PBS SoCal on average pulled in just half the viewers KCET had during the first 11 months of 2010.

“The core PBS audience has embraced us,” said Mel Rogers, PBS SoCal president, but “the casual viewer is still lost. They don’t know the difference between what it means to be a PBS station and a public broadcasting station.”

“If you had told me a year later we’d be doing as well as we are,” he said, “I would have been happy. But it’s also very frustrating that growth is as incremental as it is, on a month-to-month basis.”

The total-day figures are down year-to-year because Latino households with children, in particular, didn’t make the switch to PBS SoCal. “We’ve had some challenges with kids’ content,” acknowledged Paula Kerger, PBS’s president and chief executive.

Last month, PBS launched the paid ad campaign, extending through February, to reach Latino families through Spanish-language press, billboards and bus-stop posters. “We’re not back yet, but we’ve seen some progress there,” Kerger said.

When KCET opted out of PBS in a financial dispute, the three remaining PBS stations took the opportunity to start working more collaboratively — continuing a process begun with CPB’s assistance while there were still four PBS channels in town.

As part of the alliance-building, PBS SoCal took the unusual step of allowing the two smaller, part-time members of PBS, KLCS and KVCR, to air the network’s shows without the eight-day delay that usually goes with a reduced-price Program Differentation Plan membership. So new episodes of shows such as Nova and Frontline are getting multiple airings across the region. From the beginning this year PBS SoCal also promoted the KLCS and KVCR schedules right up front on its website so viewers could easily find PBS shows. All three stations at the time were also cross-promoting on air, with PBS SoCal directing viewers to the other stations and vice versa.

KVCR, licensed to San Bernardino community colleges, and PBS SoCal are programmed in a coordinated effort by BaBette Davidson, an outsourced programmer based in Atlanta. Since September, she has also been advising the third PBS outlet, KLCS, run by the L.A. public schools.

So far, the combined strategy has benefited small KVCR, which reaches only a portion of the Los Angeles market. Its primetime audience has jumped 29 percent, on average, for the first 11 months of this year.

But the education-oriented KLCS has lost 19 percent of its year-to-year primetime audience and even more in October and November. (Its total-day averages have risen a bit.)

“They were not operating as a part of the consortium until recently, so we’re working to adjust some of that,” Davidson said. “We’ve got some ground to make up.”

Sabrina Fair Thomas, interim g.m. of KLCS, said that up until about July, “we were resistant to allowing our program schedule to be determined outside the station,” but at that point “we decided, let’s relinquish some of that to the good of the cause.” The station’s need to program for the L.A. educational community will always come first, she said, but “we’ve been trying to cooperate, to be complementary so we’re not in conflict. It works out for some better than others.”

Thomas said she has asked PBS and CPB for rebranding and promotional support. “I don’t want them to fall into the same paradigm” as when KCET dominated the market, she said. “You have to value the multidimensional attributes of our market,” she added, rather than “putting all your eggs in one basket — and then when it drops out everyone panics.”

The recent decision by PBS SoCal to stop cross-promoting KLCS and KVCR on air has hurt, she said.

Rogers explained the move: “We found it was creating a lot of added brand confusion that we didn’t need right now.” Viewers didn’t know whether KCET was PBS or not, some got confused by the PBS SoCal name, and “when we’re also running spots that throw out KVCR and KLCS we’re adding complication,” he said.

Interactive program guides, Davidson noted, refer to KOCE, not PBS SoCal. And the station doesn’t yet have all of the low cable channel positions that KCET did.

While the stations began cross-promotion with “all good intentions,” she said, “trying to make it as easy as possible for people, to show them how many choices they had — it probably made it too many choices for people.”

Rogers said he expects the practice will resume in a few months. “I’m a total proponent of multistation cross-promotion,” he added. But “we have pulled back right now, to establish the PBS SoCal brand and make sure everybody’s clear where PBS shows are.”

Anti-pledge incentive

PBS SoCal watched its ratings dip when it airs pledge drives and KCET doesn’t. But the station has already cut way back on the pledging it was doing previously. “Pledge hours are down 45 percent, and pledge dollars are up 52 percent,” Rogers said. PBS SoCal acquired some direct-mail lists hoping they would include KCET members, and the response, he said, “has been terrific.” Corporate sponsorships “have about doubled,” he added. All of which is helpful, because PBS SoCal’s dues obligation to PBS tripled to $3 million annually.

Without a head of development — the station is in the process of hiring one — large gifts have yet to materialize, and conversations are only just beginning with major donors outside Orange County. A $3 million gift is pending; a $2 million donation just fell through.

PBS SoCal has always produced Orange County news, but local programs aimed at the broader Los Angeles market will help the station, he said, noting that creating local content initially had to take a back seat. In January, PBS SoCal will reconfigure its half-hour weekly Inside OC into SoCal Insider, which will have a wider purview — poking into KCET’s territory and venturing close to the name of its award-winning public-affairs show, SoCal Connected.

PBS SoCal also hopes to add local arts coverage soon. PBS’s Major Market Group is assembling a weekly arts magazine, under the auspices of New York’s WNET, which will provide stories and elements that stations can combine with local content, Rogers said.

And what of KCET?

Former PBS flagship KCET, meanwhile, has suffered a 35 percent drop in its average audience, January through November. That’s 25 percent behind PBS SoCal. In total day ratings, PBS SoCal’s advantage, on average, has been just 7 percent.

KCET fundraising is down, as expected, but it’s got new reserves, having sold its historic Sunset Boulevard studio for a reported $42 million. It will move in April to a new headquarters in Burbank with less studio space.

Local programs are on the drawing board, including some joint ventures with arts institutions, and it just announced production of five shows as part of a $50 million deal with former Walt Disney Co. executive Dominique Bigel, some to be syndicated internationally, that could hit the schedule next fall.

“We started out saying we had a three-year plan to rethink TV, and we’ve been progressing very nicely with that plan,” said Al Jerome, KCET president.

One key PBS move may give KCET a boost. When veteran newsman Bill Moyers returns to the airwaves in January, he’ll be seen Sundays at 6 p.m. on PBS SoCal. But he’ll also be seen Fridays at 8 p.m. on KCET, where he drew strong numbers for years. PBS declined to pick up his new show, so it is being syndicated by American Public Television — and it’s up for grabs for any station, KCET included.

Kerger said she was pleased that, when all four of the market’s public TV stations are combined, the audience for public television has edged up this year (by 1 percent in primetime, year-to-date through November.)

The station switch “managed to attract attention to public television in L.A.” and increased total public television viewing, agreed Craig Reed, director of audience analysis at TRAC Media Services, the audience-research firm serving public TV.

Referring to the three PBS stations, Kerger said, “we’re on the right path. We’re increasing audience and on a sustained basis,” even though the transition was largely done without paid ads.

That was echoed by Andy Russell, senior v.p. of PBS Ventures and PBS’s point man for the transition. While the kids’ viewing challenge was more than anticipated, he said, primetime has progressed nicely. “It’s not an 11-month process; it’s a multiple-year effort,” he said.

“We’re all on an upward trend,” Rogers said, referring to the three PBS stations. “We’ll make it up. But it’s going to take time.”

Even KLCS’s Thomas is optimistic. “This is a process; this wasn’t going to be perfect overnight,” she said. “I’m hoping the ultimate outcome will be of obvious benefit to everyone, and if we have to go through some pains to get there, hopefully, at the end of the day, we’ll be there.”

THERE’S AN APP FOR IT

While PBS SoCal reminds viewers that PBS shows have moved to its channels, KCET developed an online app (go to kcet.org/findkcet) to tell them the cable and satellite channel numbers where its five streams of programs are found.

EARLIER STORIES

Religiocasters are high-bidders for KOCE, 2003.

Will KCET quit PBS membership? August 2010.

Popular notion among the L.A. stations for a while: four-station consortium, August 2010.

KCET’s split from PBS leaves uncertainty for both, October 2010.

Timeline: Three years of talks fail to end dispute over KCET’s dues

KOCE goes primary after KCET goes nuclear, October 2010.

PBS SoCal’s ratings stayed ahead of KCET’s this year except when the new frontrunner was pledging, as of July 2011.

Los Angeles stations tried collaboration in 2000. Despite CPB’s financial support of just over $1 million, nothing came of the effort.

Comments, questions, tips? Contact freelance reporter Elizabeth Jensen at midwestEAJ@gmail.com

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