Amid public television's ongoing struggles for funding, Los Angeles' KCET has created an ambitious plan to expand local programming.
The initiative, "Celebrate the Southland, KCET at Ten," includes a mix of proposed programs including viewers' restaurant reviews and solutions to government problems, celebrity home tours and profiles of hometown heroes. The station's new "Saturday Night Movie," which launches tonight with "East of Eden," starring James Dean, represents the first phase of the initiative; if underwriters are found, other local programs could start phasing in next year.
KCET's plan materialized after a year of collaboration between station executives and the former network programming guru Fred Silverman, who held key positions at CBS, ABC and NBC in the 1970s and '80s. In his career, Silverman greenlighted such popular shows such as "Charlie's Angels" and "Three's Company."
"What Fred brings in is a very high-impact, entertainment-driven concept of public service," said Al Jerome, president and chief executive of KCET. Jerome and Mare Mazur, KCET's executive vice president of programming and production, both worked with Silverman at NBC. "He knew we had commercial sensibilities," Jerome said. "All of us have been in businesses where we put on television programs that will interest an audience."
The local station's effort comes at a time when public television faces pressure to compete for viewers in a rapidly expanding media environment. KCET's proposal is just the sort of programming public broadcasting needs to keep government funds, a small but significant portion of its budget, from shriveling, said John Lawson, president and chief executive of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. "Public stations across America will be watching KCET because they are looking for new ways to reach their communities," he said.
But watchdogs are already sounding cautionary notes, suggesting the plan may be too commercial for public television's 40-year-old mandate to provide the public with free information and serve the underserved. Although a nightly block of local programming could be seen as progress for KCET, it's also a "kind of signal that they've resigned themselves to an increasingly commercial and relatively insignificant place in the media landscape," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog organization. "I hope Al Jerome is not going to be standing up there at a local restaurant trying to sell viewers the Ginzu Knife."
On the contrary, Jerome said, the programs will have no commercial tie-ins. Although some of the programs may have pledge breaks — offering DVDs as a gift for a membership, for instance — "we have no desire to pander to corporate interests," he said. "We will not succeed if we do that."
Jerome said the initiative is aimed at engaging viewers not only from Los Angeles but from all 11 Southern California counties the station serves. Viewers could participate in "Check Please! SoCal," a local adaptation of an Emmy-winning Chicago program in which ordinary people recommend their favorite restaurants. Through an interactive cellphone connection, they will be able to make reservations or buy things, with a portion of the proceeds going to KCET.
DVDs of movies shown on movie night, such as "The Grifters" or "Amadeus," will also be offered for sale on the show and on KCET's website, with KCET receiving a portion of the proceeds.
Hourlong programs proposed in the nightly block include cultural features such as "Curtain Call," adaptations of current theatrical productions produced at KCET and performed before a live audience; "Young Filmmakers," student-produced feature-length and short films; and concerts, outdoor theatrical and musical productions. Getaways, consumer deals, local parades and fireworks are part of the plan.
Civic issues would be covered in "If You Ran the City," in which citizens offer a panel of local mayors their solutions to problems such as traffic and schools; "Hometown Heroes," reenactments of heroic deeds; "Meet Your Neighbors," self-made mini-documentaries; "Southland Documentaries," commissioned documentaries about topical issues in the region; "Speak Up," person-on-the-street interviews on wide-ranging issues; and "KCET Town Meeting," in which local politicians mix it up with a studio audience.
Chester called the initiative a "potentially promising development given the lack of local, in-depth programming on television," in both broadcast and cable. "Locally produced programming has gone beyond being an endangered species to being practically extinct in U.S. television."
In recent years, KCET has cast itself as a last bastion of localism, the only independent and locally owned station in a market increasingly controlled by consolidating corporations. It has also aimed to create closer bonds with Hollywood. Though Silverman was associated with the rise of "jiggle TV" in the 1970s, KCET executives believed he still had an instinct for what the public wants to watch. The 69-year-old is now working on creating network comedies, pairing older writers with younger ones, through the Fred Silverman Co., which he operates out of his home.
Silverman said KCET's proposal dovetailed with his decade-old efforts to produce local programming for multicasting — a still undeveloped notion that national networks would supplement their broadcasts with local services on multiple platforms. He volunteered to act as a pro bono consultant.
"What appealed to me was that it's an idea that is really ahead of the curve," Silverman said. "Look at the state of public television now. I think they're wondering what is the next step? There has to be more than 'Masterpiece Theatre' and 'Antiques Roadshow.' "
Public television has tended to have an East Coast flavor since the major producing stations are in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., Lawson said. Though once the recipient of large grants, KCET has staked its claim most recently as the West Coast player in the 145-member organization, winning several awards for programs such as "A Place of Our Own" (and its Spanish language version "Los Ninos en Su Casa"). The public service project, offering parents information about helping preschool children develop social and cognitive skills, is now carried by 66% of the country's public stations. KCET co-produced the lauded "California Connected" project, a statewide news magazine that was suspended for lack of funds.
The station also produces the local newsmagazine "Life & Times," "Visiting With Huell Howser" and "The Tavis Smiley Show," a PBS staple. This week PBS also picked up the first season of "Wired Science," a series KCET will produce in association with Wired Magazine.
"It takes time to break into the national production leadership within our industry, but KCET is moving into the front ranks," Lawson said. KCET's new project is a "demonstration that we can be true to our noncommercial mission and be entertaining and attract new audiences. I'm all for it," he said.
So far, the only funded program in the initiative is "Saturday Night Movie," a weekly showcase of uncut movies from the Warner Bros. library, hosted by Martin Sheen. Besides Warner Bros. Entertainment, the segment will be underwritten by the Michael J. Connell Foundation and the Elizabeth Hofert Dailey Trust.
When KCET executives pitch corporate underwriters and foundations, Mazur said, "We're asking them to look at the overall environment of our schedule. It's uncluttered. Their message of good citizenship will be reflected because they're supporting our program."
Silverman, for one, said he enjoys a good-citizen feeling that comes from making programs that entertain people but also provide substance.
"You want to be able to get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, I put that on the air.' "