Front gate of KCET studio lot, with inset of Al Jerome, president

KCET is waiting for word about planned tentpoles of its first non-PBS schedule. Pictured: President Al Jerome and the station's front gate. (Photos: KCET.)

KCET’s split from PBS leaves uncertainty for both

Published in Current, Oct. 18, 2010
By Dru Sefton

It’s official: KCET, one of the biggest siblings in the PBS family, is leaving home for good.

Although station President Al Jerome has complained for years about high network dues and the contentious overlap situation with KCET’s three PBS brethren in the Los Angeles area, few in the system thought he would actually sever the station’s 40-year link to PBS.

Mel Rogers, president of the region’s new primary PBS station, KOCE in nearby Huntington Beach, summed up the reaction of many pubcasters:

“Up to the last minute, I did not think Al would go nuclear,” Rogers told Current.

The first major-market affiliate to announce its defection came after months of difficult negotiations that had the feel of a high-stakes game of chicken (timeline). KCET’s decision to drop its PBS membership as of Jan. 1, 2011, left both the station and the network wounded:

The timing is also dangerous for PBS as well as KCET. PBS has been under increasing pressure to freshen the schedule with “the next big show,” not just same-old, same-old offerings such as the upcoming sesquicentennial repeat of Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

The first domino?

PBS President Paula Kerger said the network will have a dual focus in Los Angeles following the KCET departure. There’s the new reality after Jan. 1, with KCET gone and KOCE as the primary, and all the adjustments that change will take. “The second” she said, “is how do we look at the L.A. market in the long term?”

Kerger said PBS and CPB are both interested in bringing the SoCal Consortium to fruition; that’s the alliance among the three remaining PBS affiliates — KOCE, KVCR and KLCS (Current, Aug. 9, 2010). “I think there’s potential for new models for the public broadcasting situation in Los Angeles, and this gives us an opportunity to think afresh about what this might look like,” Kerger said.

But even beyond all that looms the dreaded domino effect: If KCET thrives as an independent public TV station, might other PBS member stations follow its example, shedding dues costs and charting their own courses in the new world of public media?

That’s what seriously troubles Ward Chamberlin, who literally helped design the membership-based Public Broadcasting Service. He was CPB’s first chief operating officer in 1967. His three decades in pubcasting included executive roles at PBS, WNET, WETA, and American Playhouse, as well as service on the NPR Board. (He’s still active, working on a documentary about the artist James McNeill Whistler, with a $750,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.)

The KCET departure “is a terrible development for public broadcasting,” said Chamberlin from his home in Westport, Conn. “I’m very distressed by this.”

“It’s hard to predict the future,” Chamberlin said. “Al Jerome is betting KCET can pick good programs and buy them at a decent price. He thinks they can make a go of it. I don’t think so.”

“God help KCET”

Jerome sees the diverse, creative, film-centered market of Los Angeles as the key to the new KCET’s lineup — after all, it is the movie and TV production capital of the world. He doesn’t yet know how much of the $7 million in dues savings will go toward shows.

“Every budget year is a different situation,” he noted — but clearly most will be plowed into what he called “reconstituting the base of programming.” He said KCET is close to announcing its first independent lineup. “We’re just waiting on a couple of tent poles” to be finalized, he said.

Station staffers are crafting a 24- to 36-month plan to transform the station and its content offerings. “During that period, on Day 1, you’ll see more acquisition and less production than in years two and three,” Jerome said. “Obviously, it takes time to ramp up production.”

Acquisition of good content can be tricky, said Scott Dwyer, who programs San Francisco’s KQED as well as KTEH in San Jose. Part-time PBS members — PDP or Program Differentiation Plan stations, the category that Jerome had sought for KCET — have the benefit of using at least some PBS-distributed shows, he said. “They use the best of PBS and with the money left over go out and find stuff, and those stations find that’s not easy to do.” The PBS NPS remains the gold standard of lineups — recognizable and popular shows to brag about during pledge.

In-house production also is far more expensive. Dwyer estimated that a large-market station might acquire a one-hour documentary for between $1,000 and $3,000, but producing even an lesser version locally would cost “at least $10,000 and upward, and that would be more like a talking-heads show.”

As Chamberlin said bluntly, “God help KCET if they try to produce their own. That will bankrupt them in no time.”

Jerome remains undaunted. He said he’ll counter the current trend, confirmed in an economic survey of pubTV for CPB (Current, Oct. 4) that stations’ local production across the country dropped 19 percent during FY09, “We’re going the other way,” he said. “Within a couple of years we’ll prove the community value of having locally oriented productions.”

And just how to bankroll that? “No. 1, we have to alter our funding paradigm,” Jerome said. “We won’t be pledging in same way, we’ll have different messages. We’re going to attract and motivate major donors in a different way. We have pillars of our community behind us, and we’re just starting spell out this new vision.”

Jerome said the station is in “significant conversations” with a local public radio station for a news program collaboration. Area cultural organizations have expressed interest in partnerships, he said.

And the station is already “hybridizing” its Sunday Night Movie, new this fall, by hiring local entertainment reporter Sam Rubin to select and introduce films. For Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, Jerome said, Rubin talked about the significance the film had to the movie business and fashion industry. “For an audience that really cares about movies, that’s a good example of a national film localized,” Jerome said.

Mission first

Go back in time to the 1950s, when there were pubTV stations but no PBS. A membership organization as opposed to a headquartered network “was the only way we could put PBS together,” Chamberlin said. “Back in the ’60s, stations were too leery of a top-down network in which somebody could tell them what put on their stations.”

“So we got them to compromise to be members, and they agreed and it worked out quite well,” he said.

That design continues to serve the system well. “Look at what’s happening in media, with local organizations struggling to exist on their own,” Kerger said. “But when local media can come together within a national framework, they can do things other organizations can’t accomplish.”

According to CPB, KCET joins just five other non-PBS public TV stations that receive CPB funding: KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., which dropped out of PBS in July 2009 (Current, Aug. 11, 2010); WNYE-TV, affiliated with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; KRSC/RSU Public Television, an educational station licensed to Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla.; KUEN, also educational, licensed to the Utah State Board of Regents; and WYBE/MiND TV, owned and operated by Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, which runs five-minute community programs, international news and public affairs

As for KCET’s success, “it really depends on how it defines its mission,” said KQED’s Dwyer. “That’s what’s first — mission. Their goals and success will come from that.”

Jerome said KCET and its board are at drawing up a new mission statement. “I think a public TV station needs to be truly public, embrace the diversity of its community and reflect the various voices in the community,” Jerome said. “Its public has to think of it as their public station. If people contact us with programming ideas or issues they want to cover, we need to address that. And we’ll put that content on the air.” 

How will viewers — and the pubcasting system — evaluate non-affiliate KCET’s success? “If KCET shrinks by 80 percent but stays viable, is that success?” said former pubcaster and new-media advocate John Proffitt, now an IT project manager in Anchorage, Alaska. “If they produce at a local level but it’s not national-caliber quality programming, is that success?”

“If it’s a bit lower-quality programming but brings more interaction with the community, I’d say, yes, that’s a success,” he said. “But others might look at that and say it’s an abject failure. I’m OK with ‘sustainable’ and ‘serving the community.’”

Such experiments are necessary if the pubcasting system is to move into a different public-media future, Proffitt added. “Stations can’t keep paying exorbitant dues. I don’t think paying ransom to PBS is going to get us there.”

“Somebody has to be first,” he said. “The alternative is to keep paying dues until you go out of business. I’d rather see a station say to its community, ‘Come with us on this experiment.’ I’d much rather see that than hear the announcement from its board president, ‘We’re giving up.’” 

From KCET's website: FAQ about its plan for 'going independent'

We know many of you have questions about today's announcement. While some of the answers are evolving, we do have responses to some basic questions:

1) Why is KCET becoming an independent station?
KCET and PBS were unable to reach agreement on a reduction in PBS fees and on providing KCET more programming flexibility.

2) What will happen to the PBS programs on KCET?
KCET will continue to air the PBS schedule until December 31, 2010. KCET does not know what PBS plans to do as of January 1, 2011, but we expect that PBS will make an announcement.

3) Will there be any major changes in the KCET line-up prior to the end of the year?
No.

4) What shows will KCET put on air in place of PBS programming?
KCET will continue to air the non PBS series that are already on our schedule, like BBC World News, MI-5, Globe Trekker and Doc Martin, plus adding new shows in the same genres that we know our viewers love from national and international sources.

5) How will operating as an independent public television station change the way KCET is programmed?
KCET will continue its commitment to offer diverse perspectives and quality programming serving the Southern California community.

6) Will KCET Orange, KCET Desert Cities and V-me still be available? What will happen to the PBS World channel?
We are going to take a hard look at our multicast channels to determine how to best serve the community. KCET will no longer present the PBS World as of January 1, 2011. You can find KCET's programming and schedule updates on our website at kcet.org/schedule.

7) Will KCET still serve the same geographic region?
Yes. KCET remains committed to providing the 11 counties in our broadcast region with quality programming that reflects the rich diversity of the communities we serve.

8) What happened to the Southern California consortium concept?
KCET intends to continue our discussions with the three other over-lapping public television stations in our area to cooperatively program and cross-promote through a Consortium.

9) What was required for KCET to have stayed a PBS station?
PBS and KCET would have had to reach agreement on a dues reduction.

10) Where can I view my favorite PBS program?
KCET will continue to carry the PBS lineup through December 31, 2010. There are three other PBS stations in the Southern California region that carry a limited amount of PBS programming.

11) Where can I view the entire PBS lineup if I live in Southern/ Central California?
KCET will continue to carry the PBS lineup through December 31, 2010. KCET does not know what PBS plans to do as of January 1, 2011, but we expect that PBS will make an announcement.

12) Can I watch my favorite PBS show online?
Some PBS programs are and have been available online for some time at pbs.org.

13) Will I still be able to watch Tavis Smiley on KCET?
No, Tavis Smiley and Tavis Smiley Reports will not be available on KCET as of January 1, 2011. Tavis Smiley's programs are produced for PBS and only available to PBS member stations.

14) Will I still be able to watch Huell Howser on KCET?
KCET will continue to feature Huell Howser's programs, including Visiting... and Calfornia's Gold, among others. Huell Howser's programs are independently produced for all public television stations - meaning that stations with or without PBS membership may carry his programs.

15) How will KCET's decision to leave PBS affect children's programming?
There will be changes to the children's program schedule, which will be announced at a later date. KCET will no longer carry any of the PBS KIDS® And PBS Go! programs. We will continue to carry the Peabody Award-winning series for caregivers A Place of Our Own and Los Niños en Su Casa.

16) How is KCET's decision to leave PBS going to better serve Southern and Central California?
KCET remains committed to providing the 11 counties in our broadcast region with quality programming that reflects the rich diversity of the communities we serve. KCET is also committed to providing content that reflects the very special, diverse region we call home. KCET is looking forward to producing more local programming, which we believe will better serve our region.

17) Will KCET produce more local programming?
Yes. SoCal Connected returns for its third season in mid-October. KCET will also be positioned to provide a distinctly local service in all. areas of programming: News and Public Affairs, Science and Technology, and Arts and Culture.

18) Does this mean an end to pledge drives?
No. KCET will remain a non-profit, donor-supported public media organization serving Southern and Central California. The solution, however, is not to become a commercial station. We operate under a non-commercial educational license, and that will not change. While there still will be a significant need to raise money from viewers, KCET will work on a new approach to pledge.

If you have additional questions, please leave them with using the comments field below and we will add answers to this list as we get them.

Comments, questions, tips? seftond@current.org

Web page posted Oct. 20, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC

“Up to the last minute,
I did not think
Al would go nuclear,”
said Rogers.

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

KOCE goes primary after KCET goes nuclear

EARLIER STORY

A smaller station, KCSM in San Mateo, finds there's life after PBS. August 2010.

KCET warns it may leave PBS, August 2010.

‘Al Jerome is betting KCET can pick
good programs
and buy them at a decent price,’
says Chamberlin.
‘He thinks they can make a go of it.
I don’t think so.’

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