TELEVISION : Is This Really Public TV? : The ultimate pledge drive: KCET is moving into everything from mall outlets to interactive centers. Drama is history, but kids are a big part of the future.


Consider KCET-TV Channel 28. There’s “Sesame Street,” “Baseball,” interminable membership pledge drives, “Three Tenors” and some nice chat on its signature local series, “Life & Times.”

Don’t stop there. Consider the reality of KCET, circa 1995:

* Four KCET Stores of Knowledge dot Southern California malls, and more are coming.

* At KCET’s 6-month-old Call Center in an office building in Glendale, up to 70 VideoFinders telemarketers work the phones, finding and selling videocassettes.


* A related telemarketing business to gain subscribers for other public-TV stations and other nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles is under way.

* KCET is one of 20 PBS stations participating in Mathline, a non-broadcast teacher-training initiative for math teachers, using videos and computer hookups.

* An Interactive Media Center, where CD-ROMs and other multimedia equipment can be designed, waits in the basement of KCET’s main building, ready to move to a planned two-story Educational Telecommunications Center.

That fusion of technology, education and entrepreneurship isn’t all. There’s also different programming coming out of KCET these days. The station has virtually abandoned production of drama.

Once home to “Hollywood Television Theatre,” “Visions” and “American Playhouse,” KCET’s biggest, most expensive program venture for PBS now is “The Puzzle Place,” which premieres Jan. 16. The $10-million-plus series for preschoolers is designed to promote racial harmony and self-esteem. That program is in addition to Channel 28’s “Storytime,” a 2-year-old children’s series that promotes reading.

“This station is in a stage of evolution,” pronounces KCET’s president and chief executive officer, William H. Kobin, in his sunny third-floor office on Channel 28’s Sunset Boulevard lot. “We are evolving from a television station into a telecommunications center. We are now in a new era of interactive, multimedia communications.


“For 30 years, we were essentially--and this is not to downgrade it--a production center and an over-the-air broadcasting station. And now we are transitioning into an entity which produces and provides a number of different kinds of programs and services, distributes them to a number of different kinds of audiences and does it using a number of different kinds of technologies.”

The evolution is driven by need (traditional income sources have dipped or flattened), by the opportunities new technologies present and by certain realities: PBS’ daily block of children’s programming offers a ready market for such fare, and raising money to produce it is probably easier than for potentially controversial drama.

Asking Kobin how all these changes make for better TV produces some resistance. That’s “focusing on our over-the-air schedule, as if that is all we exist to do,” he responds. What’s on the air “is not the be-all and the end-all, but it is absolutely our No. 1 priority, absolutely our bread and butter, and without a strong schedule, we’re nowhere. . . . All these other things, in effect, are sideshows at the moment . . . but they are very important activities.”


What’s happening at KCET is happening to a degree throughout public television, particularly at the larger stations, which are scrambling to find new sources of revenue and ways to distinguish themselves from scores of new television channels--many of which are biting into traditional PBS program genres.

In the wake of November’s sea change in politics, the emphasis on the entrepre neurial may have come none too soon. On the Sunday after the GOP won control of both houses of Congress, incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked on “This Week With David Brinkley” what he thought about federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He replied: “I personally would privatize all of them.”

While few in public broadcasting believe that Gingrich can eliminate or gut the $285.6 million earmarked for public television and radio this year--the wishes of President Clinton and the Senate also come into play--the specter of long knives hovers. But public TV showing enterprise can’t hurt.

Kobin has been nudging KCET in that direction almost since his arrival in 1983, contending that “the more broad-based the sources of support are, the better off a public institution like KCET is. . . . The logical way (was) to develop services we could sell.”

So there he was the Monday after Thanksgiving, crowing like any retailer: “I’ve had my fingers crossed waiting for something huge to happen. And it happened in every store, starting Friday. Just amazing. We (previously) had only one double-digit day, over $10,000 gross. And all four had some double-digit days since, which is great, which is terrific.”

And there was Timothy B. Conroy, who in 1992 was given the title of KCET’s senior vice president of marketing and business development, telling a board meeting in mid-November: “Montclair Plaza--that store came out of the gate like a racehorse!”

The first outlet opened at the Glendale Galleria in April and was followed by shops at malls in Santa Monica, Newport Beach and Montclair, selling educational books, games, cassettes and CD-ROMs.

In quick geometric progression, KCET and business partners Lakeshore Learning Materials and the venture capital firm of Riordan, Lewis and Haden plan to open eight more stores this year, here and in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., partnered with public-TV stations bearing their station names on Store of Knowledge; 16 more are planned for 1996, adding outlets in Denver, Detroit and San Diego.

While a profit won’t show for several years as income is plowed back into the business, Kobin says that eventually the stores will generate a return like an endowment to help fund programming and operation of the station.

A venture that is making money already--although KCET won’t say how much--is VideoFinders.

Starting small five years ago, it now has a database of more than 125,000 titles--about half of them available to the home market--from which it can search and sell at retail. KCET has enlisted 11 other public television stations to help market the service. Commercial TV programs and feature films constitute the bulk of product; about 10,000 titles, Conroy estimates, are from public TV.

In a sense, VideoFinders is its own little Blockbuster. “We buy wholesale and sell retail,” he says. “We can help you find more than you’re interested in. You call (for) ‘The Civil War,’ but if you (want) anything else on the subject, you’re into (our) unique world.”

Another business beginning to grow at the Call Center is telemarketing, to boost subscribers for public TV stations, an outgrowth of KCET’s own success in that pursuit.

“In the membership arena, we are literally No. 1 in generating income through telemarketing in public TV,” Conroy says. “So we’re taking that expertise and making it available. We’re also interested in helping other nonprofit (groups) in Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, the station’s business of renting its sound stages to outside producers is flourishing. Ron Reagan, telethons and the syndicated program “Judge for Yourself” have broadcast there.

Kobin and Co. decline to discuss exactly how much money is being invested in or reaped from these entrepreneurial ventures. But it appears to be a small portion of KCET’s $50.8-million 1994 budget, and Kobin cautions that private enterprise is not public television’s “magic bullet.” He insists that individual subscribers are still its most important income source--last year, nearly $18 million.

Private enterprise, in other words, is not the wave of the future--merely a revenue stream.

KCET got into children’s TV almost on a fluke. As Stephen Kulczycki, senior vice president for programming and station manager, tells it, in 1990, longtime supporter Helen Bing let the station know she and her husband wanted to do something special.

“I said, ‘I have a little girl, now 3, and I’ve just been reintroduced to the world of children’s literature, and it’s just amazing what people are creating,’ ” Kulczycki says. “So I opened some books I brought. And she said, ‘Funny you should mention this.’ (She) reaches down and picks up a canvas bag and pours out 25, 30 children’s books on the table, and says, ‘I’ve always been interested in trying to do something about literacy.’ ”

The Bings funded two seasons of 40 episodes of “Storytime,” featuring kids, a hip puppet and celebrity readers such as Tom Selleck and Cloris Leachman, with $2 million. In 1993, “Storytime” also got $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s children’s educational TV endowment. Recently, the Bings told KCET they will fund a third 20-episode season of “Storytime” for $1 million.

Next KCET and Lancit Media won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting competition for a preschool series on diversity, which brought $4.5 million. Southern California Edison gave another $3.5 million (and made “Puzzle Place” the subject of its Rose Parade float last week).

Outside the children’s arena, KCET is producing its local public-affairs show “Life & Times” and has documentaries in the works for the national schedule with subjects as diverse as the workings of the brain (“Human Quest,” due in April), World War I and the Chicano civil rights movement.

Still, both Kobin and Kulczycki speak longingly about the decline of original American drama on public television.

“One of the things that attracted me into coming out here was what I hoped would be the opportunity to work with the Hollywood entertainment community,” Kobin says. “I love theater, I love ballet, I like almost anything that happens on a stage. And I really thought I was going to come out to KCET, the station of ‘Visions,’ of ‘Hollywood Television Theatre,’ and we were going to do a lot for ‘American Playhouse’ and for ‘WonderWorks.’ I had some rude awakenings.

“It’s something I have heard a lot about through the years from the entertainment community in Los Angeles: ‘Why don’t you do more with us?’ And from the engineers on my own lot: ‘Why don’t we do more of what we used to do here?’

“Of course the world has changed,” he adds. “ ‘Hollywood Television Theatre’ and ‘Visions’ were funded by the Ford Foundation, which wanted to see a production center on the West Coast at KCET. TV drama was being done in TV studios in those days. We were the only public television station in the country that did a drama a year for ‘American Playhouse’ for over a decade (but) ‘American Playhouse’ wasn’t interested in studio drama. People don’t want to watch studio dramas anymore.”

And shooting on location costs a great deal more. “It ain’t a lack of will or desire,” Kobin exclaims.

Kulczycki says he knew “American Playhouse’s” days were numbered after Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman studio drama “Fires in the Mirror,” about the conflict between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, aired in 1993 and drew dismal ratings. “It was one of the most transformational pieces of TV drama. On KCET, its viewership measured less than 1%.”

He believes the future may lie in smaller projects, with people using video cameras to tell personal stories, much as a group of teens did with the recent series “The Ride.” He also recalls “Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Own Words,” a one-woman show in 1986 with Lee Remick, which he co-produced at KCET.

So why doesn’t he do more of that? “I can’t find financing for it”--he pauses--”or maybe the sad thing is I can’t come up with a way to believe I will find financing so I get so enthusiastic I can convince people anything’s possible.”

He allows: “I would love it if we could come up with a way of creating another ‘Playhouse’--take some money and speculate.”

So has anyone at KCET done any serious thinking about it or put effort into it? As much effort as has gone into the stores?

“I can’t say that we have,” Kulczycki responds softly.

For major programs that do get produced, however, KCET has plans to produce CD-ROMs that augment and expand upon the subject--a field into which its Boston and New York counterparts already have ventured.

Take “The Astronomers,” KCET’s 1991 series. The station envisions developing a CD-ROM that would contain the series plus new audio and visual components.

“You could punch up the equivalent of an index on the screen, hear astronomers describing black holes, get a lot more detail on practically every topic, sub-topic, sub- sub- topic in the series,” Kobin says.

KCET’s 6-month-old Interactive Media Center has 17 workstations for creating the new media. It cost $300,000; nearly half was federally funded.

The beauty of the new technology, Kobin notes, is that users are not locked into a broadcast schedule: “You can call it up anytime you want to. You don’t have to be in school; you can be at home, at the library, at the workplace.”

Already one-third of KCET’s educational division is working on non-broadcast projects. A key work in progress is “Careers in Focus,” two 15-minute videotapes for the U.S. Department of Education, designed to encourage high school students with disabilities to pursue math and science careers.

Visit the station’s educational offices and you can track on a master computer how Mathline teachers interact on-line. The project, funded by federal and private sources, involves two national teleconferences among middle-school teachers at the 20 participating stations and videocassette lessons provided by PBS.

An expanded Mathline is coming next season. And KCET is expected to join PBS’ second phase, an on-line job training program. Is this what public TV is about?

You bet, Kobin says: “Public television began as educational television, and the name was changed in the late ‘60s when PBS was created, because people felt that educational was a turnoff. Education has been at the heart of our mission. . . . Teachers don’t know how to use some of the new standards Mathline is teaching. There are going to be new standards for history and science. Somebody’s got to retrain teachers.”

And public TV is that somebody, he says, “because we have the experience, the reach, the capability. It’s our birthright. . . .

“This is not a fantasy of PBS or KCET. These are nationally driven activities . . . all in line with the big push to turn out stronger graduates. And down the road, it’s going to be a revenue producer.”

KCET is a “diversified company,” Kobin explains. “I’m not trying to sound big and fancy, but (look at) how Time Warner is considering realigning their whole structure because they are doing so many different kinds of activities. . . And that’s what we’ve got going on here.

“But, boy , things are really moving fast. When you sometimes ask, ‘Why is KCET doing this?’--in some ways, because it’s there . . . . When people ask, ‘Where is your organization going to be 10 years from now?’ Who the hell knows ? But trends you can see.”