Battling an economic slowdown that has put a crimp in corporate giving, the board of directors at KCET Channel 28 on Tuesday approved a budget for next year that will keep the Los Angeles public-television station barely a heartbeat ahead of inflation.
While it appears that, overall, KCET will have enough money to keep up at least its current levels of activity, changes in the manner in which the station allocates funds means that some programs targeted for the Southern California audience, such as “The Los Angeles History Project,” may be cut back or discontinued.
The station’s directors approved a budget of $47.8 million for fiscal year 1991, which begins July 1. The new financial plan gives the station 7.66% more money than last year’s budget of $44.4 million, but keeps it just 1.86% ahead of inflation, which so far this year has been running at 5.8%.
“It’s not a lot more than inflation,” conceded KCET President William Kobin, but station officials nonetheless said that they were “delighted” that funding and revenues have increased as much as they have. Just five years ago, KCET was in severe financial trouble, with a budget half the size of the one planned for next year and a mass of red ink.
The 1991 budget allocates increased funds for the production of programs designed for national presentation on the Public Broadcasting Service, but money for local shows remains fairly flat, said Kobin, who would not release specific figures on the allocations.
Also on the rise is money spent for development (a euphemism for fund-raising), marketing, advertising and public information and outreach, Kobin said.
Kobin said that KCET is allocating about $250,000 more toward local programming this year than it did last year, but overall spending on local production will be somewhat lower because a grant to produce “The Los Angeles History Project” is running out.
KCET plans to produce four new installments of “The Los Angeles History Project” for its third season, said Stephen Kulczycki, senior vice president and station manager.
Production of “Take Five,” a series of five-minute programs on the arts, culture and science, will also be cut back. Instead of the 25 installments produced this year, the 1991 budget calls for only 10.
Unless more money is raised from donors who specifically want to fund “The Los Angeles History Project” or “Take Five,” they will not continue beyond the end of 1990, Kulczycki said.
KCET will, however, continue producing its Emmy Award-winning local public-affairs series “By the Year 2000.” It also plans several programs about the Los Angeles Festival and will produce a program on fire prevention along the lines of its earthquake preparedness show, “Surviving the Big One.”
At the same time, the station plans to increase production of programs aimed at a national audience, Kulczycki said.
Those programs--which include installments of “American Playhouse” and a science series called “The Astronomers” and a ballet about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--not only bring prestige and viewers to KCET, he said, but also help pay for themselves through the fees paid by other stations to air them. KCET also can make money by selling videotapes of the shows.
The flat local production budget contrasts sharply with the station’s fund for building improvements. On Monday, KCET broke ground on a four-story parking structure at its Hollywood studios. Construction of the garage marks the first phase in the station’s $50-million “Campaign for KCET,” which is also designed to provide a new production services center and a broadcast center.
The difference between the two budgets highlights a shift in the station’s fund-raising philosophy: Kobin and his staff have been working for several years toward a system whereby potential donors are solicited to provide help with specific projects, instead of simply granting money to be used at KCET’s discretion.
The buildings, in other words, are being funded with money specifically raised for that purpose, money that the donors have said may only be used to upgrade the station’s facilities.
Under this system, which involves an increased use of what is known in public-television jargon as “restricted funding,” new programs will increasingly be made using money specifically donated for that program.
Similar shifts are taking place throughout public broadcasting, with station managers reasoning that this way, the programs pay for themselves. The money donated on an unrestricted basis from viewer memberships and other sources can be used for projects that are more likely to generate income for the station.
“You really need to see that big picture,” Kulczycki said. “We’re not producing those national programs because we want to put the money in a retirement fund in Tahiti. We’re doing it so we can break even on our programming. It’s all tied together.”
The new policy does not mean that all money for production will come from restricted grants--just that more of it will. In fact, restricted funds as a percentage of the 1991 budget for local programming have increased by only 2%, Kobin said.
Tying production more closely to fund raising makes the budget less flexible, Kobin said, but it steadies the station’s finances at a time when money is increasingly tight.
“It’s a mixed blessing, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay,” Kobin said. “We can’t have our cake and eat it too.”
He predicted that the impact of the policy on the station’s programming will be minimal.
“It’s harder to fund programs with a potential to be controversial than it is to fund programs that are clearly non-controversial,” Kobin said. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with our commitment to developing and trying to fund those kinds of programs.”