A smaller station finds there is life after PBS
In July 2009, KCSM in San Mateo, facing crushing financial pressures, pulled the plug on its PBS membership.
“It felt like that ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ scene where they jump off the cliff,” said Marilyn Lawrence, g.m. of the station in the Bay Area city south of San Francisco.
There’s been little backlash from viewers; PBS programs are available on other channels around the Bay. Most viewers who call are raving about the station’s new programs, Lawrence said.
Last year the licensee, San Mateo County Community College District, gave Lawrence an ultimatum: Carve $825,000 out of KCSM’s $3 million budget, or the station would be sold. Lawrence laid off six staffers out of 31, dropped PBS in July to save the network's annual assessments of $350,000, and cut other costs.
Even though she met the goal, the coming months were tough. The station turned to viewers to raise $1 million by Jan. 1, 2010; it received just $6,000. By the end of January it had raised $30,000. Once again a sale was imminent.
Finally, in April, a donor stepped forward with $400,000, and the station earned $120,000 by leasing part of its DTV spectrum to Sezmi, an on-demand TV, movie and Internet video service. Other spectrum deals are in the works. The licensee was reassured that the station was becoming financially viable.
Lawrence said her July 2009 break-up call to PBS was “very businesslike.” She and Thomas Crockett, PBS’s v.p., member affairs, discussed details of the station’s departure. “Basically he said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, because you can’t come back on,’” and he explained to her that “PBS has a birth-control policy in multiple-station markets,” she recalled.
“I didn’t feel there was any ill will involved on either side,” she added.
Lawrence turned her attention to the schedule. She first focused on making a success of programming for two nights a week. “We really wanted to make two nights special. We’re in Silicon Valley, so we knew we wanted to do a science and tech night.”
Wednesday became “Science fiction to science fact” — kicking off with The Twilight Zone and segueing into documentaries. Monday evening brings international mysteries — but not the usual British shows. “They’re from Norway, Finland, Germany, Italy. They’re starting to resonate with people. Some are subtitled, which makes it an even harder sell. But we’re actually getting really good feedback.”
Another popular addition comes via the radio side. Lawrence puts KCSM-FM jazz programming on one of KCSM-TV’s multicast channels, and accompanies the music with photos of the Bay Area, plus traffic news from the California Department of Transportation, weather from NOAA, and jazz trivia. Callers began to call pointing out that the channel was great accompaniment for their workouts. So now the station is trying Morning Cup O Jazz from 6 to 7 a.m. on its main channel.
Two other multicast channels are used for MHz Worldview, with its international offerings, and local programs such as docs from the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Series.
“I can tell you I had a number of concerns about audiences noticing the programming changes,” Lawrence said. “There were a few . . . complaints like, the sound isn’t good, or the captioning is in the wrong spot on the screen. There are more calls saying, ‘What a great program! When will you show that again?’”
Lawrence also stopped subscribing to Nielsen ratings to save money, so she takes audience temperature by the calls. One interesting development: “The audience calls tend to be a younger and edgier. Lots of 30-somethings as opposed to 60-somethings.”
Overall, Lawrence is cautiously optimistic. KCSM is saving money, although it’s not entirely out of the woods. She had hoped to be “further along” in programming primetime, and pledge remains a challenge. “We have fewer pledge programs to choose from,” she said.
“Everything takes time,” she noted. “We don’t want to look back, but forward.”
Web page posted Aug. 11, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC