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On the Media: Struggling KCET examines its options

Just three years ago, L.A.'s high-minded public television station threw in its lot with that maven of flashy, commercial TV, Fred Silverman. Some might have feared that teaming with the champion of “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company” would disfigure KCET.

Instead, the onetime network programming guru helped craft a thoughtful roster of locally oriented programs. One show would adapt theatrical productions for the small screen, another would let politicians mix with voters, while still another would reenact heroic deeds.

But KCET’s bid to reinvigorate itself fell flat. The station’s problem was not Silverman’s ambitions — which turned out to be middle- to highbrow — but raising enough money to make it happen. The station did not find the underwriters. The programs died before they ever got off the wish list.

Cue the Great Recession. Watch the audience splinter to other broadcast and online media.

Now KCET faces even bigger identity and financial challenges, and it’s looking at solutions more radical than getting advice from the godfather of “Jiggle TV.”

The options include selling the station’s historic Sunset Boulevard studios or banding together with KOCE of Orange County and other local public TV stations to save costs and coordinate programming. Or there’s the nuclear option — dropping out of the PBS network and going independent.

KCET’s chief executive, Al Jerome, and its board chairman, Gordon Bava, dropped the bombshell about one of public television’s largest stations possibly going solo when I talked to them this week. They had heard I’d been asking around regarding recent layoffs and a dearth of locally produced programming.

The next thing I know, the KCET bosses are talking about how egregiously PBS overcharges to be part of it, challenging headquarters to get its own financial house in order and suggesting how — though they want to remain — they might be forced to forge out on their own.

The KCET loyalists who originally contacted me didn’t have a problem with the talk of rebellion. But they also complained that the station needs to clean up some messes of its own — including trimming what they called a top-heavy management and setting a more consistent plan for the future.

Stations in New York, Boston and Washington have been the big players in creating shows for the 358-station PBS audience. KCET has been a more modest contributor, with a few nationally acclaimed programs, such as the preschool education series “A Place of Our Own” (and the Spanish-language version, “Los Ninos en Su Casa”). But in recent years it has focused more on catering to its Southern California base.

The local newsmagazine “SoCal Connected” (Full disclosure: I did one commentary for the show and have talked to a producer about doing more) recently won five local Emmy Awards. But that weekly show, despite its numerous awards, doesn’t have the money to stay on the air year-round.

“I don’t think KCET is very pertinent to the community now,” said one longtime employee, who asked not to be named for fear of alienating the station’s bosses. “It makes me sad that a lot of people don’t even know who we are.”

The station’s leaders pin a lot of their problems on the annual payments of $6.8 million owed to PBS. They complain that they pay a lot more than other stations and without even getting exclusivity to PBS programs like “Nova” and " Frontline” in Southern California, as KOCE can air some of the same programs, usually a few days after KCET.

“Taken to its logical extreme, PBS would have us just retransmit their programs and pay a lot of dues, which is what the vast majority of the stations do,” said Bava, the KCET chair. “But that is not our history, or what our local talent dictates or what this city demands. It’s not how we can best serve our citizens.”

PBS spokeswoman Anne Bentley disputed KCET’s reasoning and said that the station pays about the same percentage of its operating revenue to the network as other affiliates. She said the station got the lion’s share of its shows, and many other benefits, from being with the network. And Bentley rejected the notion that PBS hasn’t done its own substantial belt-tightening.

KCET’s leaders said they would like to become a more limited partner with PBS, which would give them access to just a quarter of the network’s programming but also cut their dues substantially. That would be similar to the arrangement for KOCE.

KCET hopes it might form a consortium with its Orange County cousin and two other public stations — the Los Angeles school district’s KLCS and the Inland Empire’s KVCR — to offer a full range of PBS programs in Southern California.

The consortium would also allow the four stations to combine some operations, cut back office costs and coordinate fundraisers so viewers would not be pummeled by multiple on-air pledge drives at the same time. The arrangement would allow KCET to plow money saved from dues reductions back into new programs.

The dues issue has become particularly sensitive as donors big and small have pulled the purse strings tight. An operating budget (not counting money raised for programs) that stood at $37.4 million for the year ending in June 2009 is expected to be slashed by $10 million in the current year.

A few rounds of layoffs have reduced the staff from 170 to 132. Jerome said three vice presidents have been cut in the last two years, leaving a dozen that rank or above. In 2007, the last time a public report was filed on the nonprofit’s operations, eight executives earned around $200,000 or more. Jerome’s salary then was $388,000.

Potential buyers have been touring the Silver Lake property. A sale of the studios, which have been operating since 1912 (under various owners), could be a possible source of cash. The station’s leaders say they simply can’t continue business as usual.

They described an exit from PBS only as a last resort. Jerome said he is confident that a compromise can be reached. If not, he said, he has no doubt that KCET would thrive without “The News Hour,” “Sesame Street” and “Frontline,” though he is not ready to say exactly what the station would offer in their places.

It’s hard to put a huge amount of faith in promises of big things to come, given the station’s history of unfulfilled plans.

Still, it remains an article of faith of many that Los Angeles simply has too much creative and entrepreneurial power to be anything less than a leading light in the public television constellation.

Just for starters, couldn’t KCET create a new show featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its charismatic young musical director, Gustavo Dudamel? Wouldn’t a Spanish-language version of the program find an audience, even in Central and South America? What about tapping into the local music or acting communities?

As Silverman’s volunteer stint a few years back proved, there is no shortage of ideas of what KCET could and should be. There’s mostly been a shortage of funds, thrift and follow through. At our public television station, it’s time for a little more walk and a little less talk.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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