An unusual pubTV marriage

Alliance boosts reach, funding of KCET, Link TV

By Dru Sefton

The merger of KCET in Los Angeles and satellite programmer Link TV pairs two noncommercial outlets with a shared focus on serving non-traditional public TV audiences, complementary expertise in media production, and the challenge of figuring out a new public media revenue model.

Al Jerome, KCET president

Both partners gain new platforms for their programming from the marriage and can learn from each other’s distribution, audience engagement and fundraising strategies. For KCET, that means help with its efforts to engage online audiences and to tap foundations for financial support.

The merger was approved Oct. 16 by the boards of KCET and San Francisco-based Link TV and takes effect Jan. 1. No money was involved in the transaction.

The new nonprofit, KCETLink, will have one board and management team but continue to distribute programming under each established brand. KCET President Al Jerome will be chief executive officer of KCETLink, with Link TV President Paul Mason serving as chief strategy officer. Both will work from KCET headquarters in Los Angeles.

As KCETLink, each gains new distribution outlets. Link TV, now available in 33 million households nationwide via the DirecTV and Dish satellite networks, will pick up some KCET programs and take over one of KCET’s three multicast channels in Los Angeles, securing access to broadcast audiences in the nation’s second-largest market. KCET will air some Link TV news programs on its main channel.

Paul Mason, Link TV president

Advantages for KCET go beyond the extended reach of its programming. Link TV is known for its many partnerships with innovative media organizations, said Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for media-reform advocate Free Press.

Link TV has a longstanding relationship with YouthNoise, a website founded in 2001 to help young people connect and network around causes, and that alliance could bring “hard-hitting, fantastic youth-driven voices” to the pubcaster, Stearns said. (YouthNoise last year merged with millennial activist site Mobilize.org — another Link TV partner.) More public broadcasters need to develop such relationships if they want to engage younger audiences, Stearns said.

Stearns compared the KCET-Link merger to the acquisition by American Public Media’s Public Insight Network of the crowdfunder platform Spot.Us last year. “One of the goals of this deal might be that idea of bringing innovation in-house,” Sterns said, “rather than trying to build an innovation team internally, which is a slow process from the ground up.”

KCET’s Jerome acknowledged that Link’s digital know-how made the match attractive. “Link is doing a tremendous job in digital technology,” he told Current, “so that’s complementary to us.”

Later this month Link TV is scheduled to release the first iPad app offering curated video coverage of international news. Journalists working from 125 sources will aggregate materials ranging from mainstream media feeds to unedited eyewitness footage, as well as related stories from 50,000 international news sources.

“An unusual pairing”

Link derives most of its funding from major foundations. Among the 42 credited on its website as providing grants over the past two years are the Knight Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation. The Philadelphia-based Wyncote Foundation, which provided a three-year grant supporting Current’s organizational development in 2011, is also a funder.

Foundation grants make up about 70 percent of Link TV’s $8 million annual operating budget; philanthropic support to KCET, by contrast, provides 13 percent of its $33 million budget.

It’s too early to say whether Link’s relationships with major foundations will bolster KCET’s new business model. “It’s so hard to predict how different funders will react to any news like this,” said Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders (formerly Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media), although he sees the merger as “a bold move.”

“It’s an unusual pairing,” he said, “a very exciting connection between two very different types of public broadcasting entities.”

The move gives KCET “a new story to distinguish itself from the traditional public broadcasting approach,” Stehle said. And what he called Link TV’s “impressive list” of funders over its 13-year history is even more remarkable considering that many of its foundation backers are in major cities where use of satellite TV is not widespread. “It was always a leap of faith for people to invest in a service they weren’t experiencing in their own homes,” Stehle said.

Now Link TV will be available in the second-largest broadcast market in the country, in a city that many consider to be the media capital of the world. “That’s a powerful position,” Stehle said.

“Architects of our own future”

Merger talks began “serendipitously” about six months ago, Link TV’s Mason told Current, when leaders of the organizations “started to notice complementary factors” between them.

Public media need to become more efficient, Jerome said. “By consolidating our workforces, we came up with operating and financial efficiencies, at the same time taking advantage of our complementary strengths,” he said. “As we walked down that road, we said, ‘We have to be the architects of our own future.’ The merger idea was the best solution.”

Staff and operations will be consolidated, Jerome said, with KCET taking on “a significant number” of Link’s 40 employees, for a total of around 150 staffers. “As with any merger situation, we’ll be taking a look” at possible restructuring or layoffs, he said. Employees will work for both entities.

Programming also will be combined. Some nationally relevant episodes of SoCal Connected, KCET’s weeknightly newsmagazine, will be among the shows to run on Link TV’s schedule. KCET has yet to decide which of its three multicast channels will make way for Link TV. It currently offers the Kids & Family channel, V-me and MHz Worldview.

This announcement is the latest of several program initiatives unveiled by KCET since its split from PBS in January 2011. The station retooled its lineup to feature international news programming paired with popular British dramas offered by other distributors, such as Doc Martin. Deals aimed at expanding the station’s production output — such as a $50 million partnership with a former Disney executive — have been slow to bear fruit.

Big changes at KCET go beyond programming. The station sold its longtime home, a circa-1920s studio on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, in April 2011 to the Church of Scientology for $42 million. One year later, it moved into a new headquarters in a gleaming high-rise in Burbank.

With those updated production facilities, Jerome said, KCET’s leaders “felt we had real, significant production expertise to bring to bear to assist Link.”

Link carries global and national news, documentaries and international cultural programming; KCET has since 1998 has distributed BBC World News to pubTV stations. Mason said Link TV execs “came to see KCET’s relationship with the BBC, and the international programming they’ve been sharing both in news and entertainment, as having the same values that are important to our audience.”

Jerome and Mason also have similar backgrounds. Jerome went to KCET in 1996 from a career in commercial broadcasting that included 17 years in NBC management. And before Mason took over in September 2011 at Link TV, he was a senior v.p. of ABC News.

Link TV premiered on Direct TV nearly 13 years ago after the FCC required satellite broadcasters to set aside part of their spectrum for public-service purposes (Current, Dec. 13, 1999). Its parent organization, Link Media, was co-founded by the Independent Television Service (ITVS); the Internews Network, a global nonprofit supporting local media worldwide; and InterAct, which uses webcams, online chat rooms, videoconferencing and mobile digital platforms to advance participatory democracy.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org
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