KCET’s signature: SoCal Connected
Last year, KCET’s SoCal Connected broke a story on the number of unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries popping up around Los Angeles: There were more of them than Starbucks shops. The show’s two-part report, “Up in Smoke,” along with “Cannabis Cowboys,” which followed a sting operation rooting out drug-cartel pot in state parks, won a prestigious Peabody Award last month.
On May 5, Los Angeles prosecutors began notifying more than 400 unregistered marijuana clinics that a city ordinance taking effect June 7 could put them in jail for six months.
“Our reporting pressured the Los Angeles City Council to finally take action with clear and enforceable laws,” said Bret Marcus, SoCal Connected’s executive producer.
Having a local impact, delving deeper into stories than commercial TV news shows — “that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said KCET President Al Jerome. “And from my perspective, I think this is most important thing we have to do.”
Last year, two major reports chastised pubTV’s lack of attention to local news. The Knight Commission said that while pubcasting has added “a context and fullness to news and information” over the decades, it has also “fallen short of its promise.” And a Columbia University analysis concluded that too many pubcasting dollars are spent maintaining local television and radio stations and too few to news reporting.
But covering important local issues well is a huge — and potentially expensive — challenge. A minority of public TV stations have been able to attempt a nightly news program or a weekly show with significant reportorial resources.
To a huge extent, news coverage has been left to radio, where reporting is much less costly. The back story of SoCal Connected provides insight into the tricky tightrope walk of producing solid news programming while funding sources are buffeted by unpredictable winds. And it achieves that balance well: Last year it won the breaking-news category of highly competitive Golden Mike Awards from the Los Angeles Press Club.
KCET’s main local production, for years called Life & Times, has changed names, editorial scope, and formats, gone from daily to weekly, and from 30 to 60 minutes and back. It’s been produced live or taped live, expanded to statewide scope and contracted to L.A., with changing mixes of studio roundtables, newsmag and field-produced segments. SoCal Connected now has a 60 Minutes feel, covering subjects from coyotes invading urban neighborhoods to a female soldier who returned from Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Despite all these shifts, the various incarnations have garnered six Emmys, eight Golden Mikes (including Best News Public Affairs Show), an Edward R. Murrow Award for best news documentary, five LA Press Club awards for journalism, and Los Angeles magazine’s “Best New Local TV Program” of 2009.
Jerome, Marcus and Val Zavala, the show’s anchor and a station exec, all agree that two conditions are absolutely necessary for success: Unwavering support from the top station exec and a totally flexible format. A reliable and growing budget would be a nice, too.
Keeping a visible signature
SoCal Connected has a complicated history. Its first incarnation, as the nightly Life & Times, debuted in 1992. It aired every weeknight, though it was produced less often to save money, and covered cultural topics as well as public issues. In 1998 it evolved into the live weeknight Life & Times Tonight. Then came a sister program, the weekly hourlong California Connected in 2002, developed with a statewide group of pubcasting stations committed to airing the show. California Connected downsized to 30 minutes in 2005 and ended completely in 2006, due in part to difficulties covering two vastly different cultural territories — northern and southern California. For its last season, California Connected won six regional Emmys. Then at the end of 2007, Life & Times went away too, but its journalism also continued to win awards posthumously — three Golden Mikes and four regional Emmys. In 16 years on the air, Life & Times won 35 Golden Mikes.
KCET came back with the weekly SoCal Connected in 2008. Its format allows for two or three topics in separate segments (often on a distinct theme) or a single issue for the entire half-hour.
Before he arrived at KCET in 1996, Jerome had spent years at the Big Three networks, including a decade as president of the NBC Television Station Group. He was also v.p. and g.m. of the flagship WNBC-TV/New York. During those years, he said, he oversaw seven newsrooms. His predecessor Bill Kobin had started Life & Times but Jerome honed it into a harder-edged local news show. “I am a big believer in the fact that every station, whether commercial or public, has to have a signature program. It shows the station’s priorities. It demonstrates its citizenship and commitment to the community.” For him, it’s SoCal Connected. “It’s very, very high on my priority list. I don’t care what the economy is. This may be the most important thing I do as a resource allocater.”
Zavala, who serves as on-air talent as well as v.p. for news and public affairs, said it’s essential for a signature program to rank high among the boss’s priorities. “This type of reporting cannot be done unless there is truly a dedication to local news from the top. G.M.’s come and go, and they’re ones that make it possible.”
Marcus said there’s “no getting around” the spending that it takes to produce in-depth local news shows. “One half-hour show was on California OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration], that took six months to do,” he said. It finally aired in January. “There’s no question this type of work is intensive and expensive.”
Jerome won’t discuss budget numbers, but said they’re dictated by what the station raises specifically for it. “That’s the one consistent thing from Life & Times to California Connected to SoCal Connected. KCET does not take unrestricted donor funds; we raise money from restricted grants.” And that money fluctuates. The show currently has eight sponsors, from the L.A.-specific Ahmanson Foundation to U.S. Bank. Jerome said he’s in the process of re-upping benefactors for the show’s third season.
As SoCal Connected rolls into Season 3, Marcus said it has “loyal foundation and corporate support” and he’s confident it will continue its run. Its average primetime rating is 0.5, comparable to the station’s primetime average. With each episode airing four times in a week, the show accumulates a gross audience of 86,000 households, up 24 percent from Season 1.
“A 360-degree view”
In addition to Marcus and Zavala, SoCal’s team consists of Senior Producer Justine Schmidt, four producers who work with freelance correspondents, three associate producers, and two broadcast and operations producers. “We don’t have 15 live trucks,” Marcus said, “but we do have the ability to do longer, thoughtful pieces.”
It may not be a breaking-news show, but SoCal Connected did top that category in the L.A. Press Club’s annual Southern California Journalism Awards last June. After vicious wildfires charred the area in November 2008, correspondents examined whether recent housing developments were placing residents in wildfire-prone areas. “We also looked at the state budget, and if cuts were having an impact on firefighting resources,” Zavala said. “We spent time with victims in a mobile home park that was particularly hard-hit. All the residents were forced out. We stuck with them for several days.” All that reporting went into a half-hour special, “After the Burn.”
Breaking news wasn’t its only Press Club win last year. SoCal took five honors in all, including best investigative news, for an examination of billboards popping up after a city moratorium; best doc, for a story on a disadvantaged high school; and best feature awards for stories on foreclosures and modern gold prospectors. Not bad for its first year out.
Sometimes stories just fall into place. Last November, Zavala began a major takeout on power companies, originally scheduled to run in February. That was delayed for a piece on an insurance agent with a terminal illness battling his employer for coverage, just as the health-care debate was nearing a vote. Soon after, utility rate hikes were the big local topic, so Zavala’s piece fit in perfectly. Marcus: “Sometimes we’re just lucky, although I like to think we’re on top of things.”
Patt Morrison, an anchor of the original show in 1992, still contributes commentaries. In fact, she’s done pieces for each version of the program since then, juggling that work with her own show on NPR affiliate KPCC in Pasadena and a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Morrison said the three-segment format allows SoCal Connected to present a specific topic from policy, news and opinion angles — “a 360-degree view,” as she said. Last year, Morrison had just undergone surgery when SoCal was doing a health-care show. “I still had my hospital wristband on,” she said, “and I was able to talk about health care in a personal way that also dealt with policy issues.”
Partnerships between the program and the Los Angeles Times also bring timeliness to the screen. Columnist Steve Lopez, business writer David Lazarus and media reporter Jim Rainey write for the paper as well as help transform some print pieces into show segments, and cross-promote between the two. In February Lopez did a column on a Brentwood man who wanted to build a bridge linking the garage/living room where he housed his Ferrari to a neighborhood road; Lopez retold the story on SoCal Connected in March.
Marrying a for-profit newspaper and a nonprofit television show in a competitive media market was complicated. “We took months and months to work it out,” Marcus said. “It’s a very interesting experiment — we’ll see how it goes. We also have a barter arrangement for advertising.”
What is Jerome’s hope for the show’s future? “I’d really like to raise enough money to do an hour a day. We’ll get there sometime.”
Web page posted May 18, 2010
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