Q & A with WILLIAM H. KOBIN : Looking Back Before Signing Off


Ruddy-cheeked and wearing a broad grin, William H. Kobin bounds across the lot at KCET-TV Channel 28. He’s just had his photo taken at a 1911 station landmark building, and he’s ready to reflect on 13 years as president and CEO of Southern California’s largest public television station.

Kobin, who will be 67 next month, retires Jan. 31. (His successor is expected to be named Jan. 16.)

Although he worked for ABC and CBS as a news producer, the bulk of Kobin’s career has been in public broadcasting. He was a vice president at Children’s Television Workshop in the 1970s and served for six years as president of KTCA-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul.


Under Kobin, KCET developed its signature local series “Life & Times,” weekly viewership doubled to nearly 3 million households, subscriptions grew 60% to more than 320,000 contributors and the annual budget tripled to about $43 million, making it the third-largest public-TV station in the nation. He also involved KCET in new technologies and entrepreneurial projects such as the Store of Knowledge, a retail outlet.


Question: How would you define your legacy--or say you changed this station?


Answer: One would sound so pompous to answer a question like that. . . . Let’s say the business has changed tremendously in 13 years. Fifteen, 20 years ago, there were three commercial networks, a few commercial independent stations and some public television stations.

Changing technology has been the biggest single thing. And that has led to a proliferation of channels, which has increased competition on the one hand and [on the other] has given us tremendous new opportunities. Being a UHF station, cable became a tremendous asset to KCET because we were suddenly easily obtainable in Los Angeles, and now we’re on something like 150 cable systems which enable us to cover a 10-county area from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

And then when you take the development of interactive technology, and the interfacing of television and computers and satellites and telephones, there are whole new dimensions to this business. . . .

Q: But how have you changed KCET? Your accomplishments?

A: [Pause] I’m a strong believer in strategic planning. We started in the summer of 1983, and we’ve been holding two senior management meetings a year for probably the last 10 years to try to deal with some of these vast changes.

We’ve identified four top priorities: production and broadcasting, education, technology--installing and working with the new technologies--and entrepreneurism, because it was very clear many years before the feds decided to start cutting our budget that public broadcasting was going to have to develop new sources of revenue. Traditional sources were already beginning to flatten out. I think we’ve made terrific progress in each area.


Q: Is there anything outside programming you were not able to do?

A: Well, there was one thing in programming that we had never been able to do as much as I would have liked. That’s working with the creative community of Los Angeles more, particularly in drama and performance. But the first few years really were spent focused on paying off the [$3.6-million] debt and getting back on our feet, getting off the mat--although we started developing some new programs very early in the game.

One of the first series was “Actors on Acting” [1984]. We did about 10 programs, which I’ve never forgotten. They were wonderful half-hour conversations with actors about the art of acting--Sally Field, Richard Dreyfuss, Gena Rowlands. But we couldn’t find a funder for it [to continue].

Q: How do you feel about the demise of “American Playhouse”? KCET was one of its four producing partners.

A: Terrible. There is nothing like it on the air. It’s kind of ironic reading that it looks like there are going to be a couple of small feature film channels [on cable]. Sundance is going to be a channel, [and] another organization--and that, of course, was exactly the way that “American Playhouse” was trying to go. But the money wasn’t there. . . . It was a shame.

Q: So has public TV basically given up the drama ghost?

A: That really is a decision that PBS has to make. I think PBS would like to be in the drama business but really hasn’t figured out how to do it, and doesn’t at the moment have the financing to do it.

Q: And in public affairs?

A: We [did] “KCET Journal” and the “American History Project” [in the ‘80s], a wonderful series, and a number of documentary series.


For years we wanted to do a nightly something that would not be a hard news series--of which there are plenty in Los Angeles and which also cost more than we could possibly afford--but a series that would deal with the issues confronting this area, a multicultural series that would focus on individuals accomplishing things. Not celebrities, just ordinary people in neighborhoods who were overcoming great adversity [and] would really be a reflection of the demographic fabric of those communities. Eventually it became “Life & Times”--an extraordinarily important series for KCET, and I think for the community.

Q: Why?

A: I really think it is the only local series which provides a continuing platform, a range of views on the critical issues. A series which also has a very important documentary component, and which throws a positive light . . . as opposed to the crime of the night or the scandal or the gossip of the moment.

Q: What was your best day at KCET?

A: [Long pause] I think really of days when we received commitments for production grants. It’s true. Southern California Edison for “Puzzle Place.” Helen and Peter Bing for “Storytime.” The Keck Foundation for “The Astronomers.” Irvine Foundation for “Life & Times.” Things we could not do without a major commitment from somewhere. When you get that commitment, that is absolutely thrilling.

Q: And the worst day?

A: Ach . . . the worst day was “Stop the Church” [a controversial “P.O.V.” documentary in 1991 about AIDS activists disrupting a Mass in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral]. It wasn’t a day. It was an experience, the worst experience I’ve ever had in broadcasting. . . . It was being called a bigot.

Q: By?

A: Not a specific individual . . . just having people think that I personally was a bigot. Having the cardinal [Roger M. Mahony] hold a news conference and telling Catholics to stop supporting KCET. Having people think that I was anti-Catholic. And having my board at the time split on the wisdom of having run it.

Q: How did you resolve it? Did you call up the cardinal?

A: Over time [nearly 15 months], wounds heal, and the cardinal came to lunch. At our invitation.


Q: When did you decide to retire?

A: [More than] 18 months ago. . . . I’m in good shape, the station’s in good shape, and it just seemed like a propitious time.

Q: What are you going to be doing?

A: I’d like to do some consulting, some teaching, in some way be involved with public television. Also, I’m going to take some fast-driving lessons and I’m enrolled in a cooking course and a computer course. My wonderful wife, Dottie, and I are going to travel. We’re planning a major trip to Southeast Asia. I’ve had a long list of things that I’ve been itching to do--things that you can’t cram into a two-week vacation, which is the longest I’ve taken.

Q: Are you having input on your successor?

A: I’m not a member of the search committee. By mutual consent. It’s possible there are people inside who are candidates, people outside who are candidates--all of whom are friends of mine, and I’d like to stay friends with everybody when it’s over.

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: I’m not good at this--how I changed the world and all of that stuff.

Q: What are you good at?

A: I’m good at assembling the best team in public television . . . turning them loose and trying to help and give direction. I really feel good about what KCET is today: an essential educational and cultural institution in Southern California--a channel that, if it suddenly went black permanently, would really be grieved.