With return to KCET, SoCal Connected adds local color amid hard news

By Barry Garron

Los Angeles public TV station KCET is bringing back weekly series SoCal Connected after a yearlong hiatus, this time as a mix of hard news and features. The award-winning show will start its sixth season May 14.

In previous seasons, SoCal earned a reputation for hard-nosed journalism, along with 17 local Emmys, by covering corruption at the Los Angeles Housing Authority, sweetheart deals involving electronic billboards and the dire consequences of climate change. But after the station dropped its PBS affiliation, it went into an economic tailspin that resulted in the layoffs of 22 employees, including Bret Marcus, SoCal’s executive producer. The show then went on hiatus.

KCET is reviving SoCal with $200,000 in support from Chapman University, $1 million from the Ahmanson Foundation and an undisclosed amount from the Maddocks-Brown Foundation.

Zavala

KCET’s Zavala says the new SoCal Connected will cover a wider range of subjects by taking greater advantage of the station’s website. (Photo: KCET)

Val Zavala, KCET vice president for news and public affairs, will resume her role as anchor and serve as series executive producer. The show’s freelance reporters are all newcomers, including science journalist Cara Santa Maria, former anchor of Huffington Post’s Talk Nerdy to Me video series. Senior Producer Linda Burns and Digital Executive Producer Zach Behrens are veterans of the show.

SoCal Connected returns with new music and graphics and a faster pace — four segments per episode instead of the two to three segments featured in earlier seasons. Most shows will comprise two hard-news reports and two features, with the latter intended to give viewers a broader perspective on life in and around Los Angeles.

Zavala said the broader range of coverage stems in part from a closer connection between SoCal Connected and KCET’s website. “Our website has all these vibrant areas for food and culture and local history and environmental issues,” she said. “We’re trying to draw more from our web.” In the past, she added, SoCal mainly used the station website as a platform for streaming video of past broadcasts.

One upcoming story focuses on a man who moved in with his mother so he could rent his own house for a dollar a month to a struggling family. Another, “Crazy Contraption,” looks at the artist and engineer behind a pedal-powered dining table.

Neither of those stories likely would have been produced for the series in its earlier, newsier form, Zavala said, adding that budgetary considerations did not drive the change in format.

“This is the show that I personally have been wanting to do for a while,” the anchor said. Some may say the show will be too light and fluffy, she said, but that’s not how she sees it. “Features can be truly wonderful. They’re not fluffy. They give you insight into Southern California and Southern California people.”

At the end of the show, she said, she wants viewers to say, “‘You know what? I like Los Angeles better for having watched the show because I see people who are trying to change things and solve problems. They remind me this is an incredibly innovative place.’”

The new SoCal also perpetuates the style and memory of Huell Howser, who hosted KCET’s California Gold, a long-running series about little-known cultural and historical treasures, until his death in January 2013. Howser demonstrated a love for Southern California, and “there’s a part of me that said, ‘Let’s tap into that a bit. Let’s not try to be him, but let’s remember there’s something right about Southern California, too,’” Zavala said. “So that’s the balance I’m trying to get.”

Hard news remains a big part of the series. Topics planned for this season include the impact of freeway expansion on nearby minority communities, the future of yards in Los Angeles amid the state’s persistent drought, and the mislabeling of fish sold to consumers.

The show is looking to the station’s website for ideas as well. “Our web bloggers and editors are like our research department,” Zavala said. “They feed us great ideas, so things are happening faster.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that SoCal Connected‘s stories about housing, billboards and climate change aired before KCET dropped its PBS affiliation. The stories aired after the break with PBS. The error has been corrected.
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