In 1996, when Al Jerome first signed on as the president of KCET-TV, the PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, he had grand plans for the station. A longtime commercial broadcaster and former NBC executive, hired at a time when a trio of East Coast stations dominated the market, he wanted to generate more national programming and give the station a national profile.
"It was very important to me to try to make a bigger mark inside the system and produce more for PBS," he said.
Jerome never did. He was not the first head of KCET who ultimately failed to vault the local PBS affiliate into the upper echelons of the PBS network, but he will almost certainly be the last. After more than four decades, KCET is severing its relationship with PBS and will become the nation's largest independent public TV station. Beginning Jan. 1, the Los Angeles-based station will begin airing local programs, BBC repeats, and news and documentary shows produced in Canada, Japan and elsewhere, while Orange County's KOCE-TV (which will be known as PBS SoCal) will become the primary carrier of PBS programming in Southern California.
Next week, in addition to being without an NFL franchise, Los Angeles will lose another hallmark asset that major cities typically claim — a flagship PBS affiliate. Why couldn't the nation's second-largest media market sustain a thriving PBS affiliate that operated a top national player? If New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., can do it, why couldn't Los Angeles?
While KCET officials contend they were marginalized by an institutional bias within PBS toward an elite group of East Coast stations, critics are adamant, at times withering, in their view that the local station squandered its potential, surrendered its ambition of becoming a national player and never truly connected with its viewing public - who after all were counted on to largely fund the endeavor.
One need look no further than the amount of prime-time programming hours produced for the national PBS audience last year, say critics. While WNET in New York (125 hours), WGBH in Boston (135 hours) and WETA in Washington, D.C. (337 hours), combined for 597 hours, KCET contributed just 10.
"KCET has long had the reputation in the Los Angeles creative community as a hamstrung entity with total lack of imagination," said Lawrence Wenner, professor of communication and ethics at Loyola Marymount University. "In California, San Francisco's KQED and even San Diego's KPBS have been far more contributing players to the national profile of a remarkably moribund public television. Add in that the Washington-New York-Boston axis of these stations has made them more politically engaged, culturally relevant and educationally centered, this has put KCET as an unanchored and notably unimaginative cultural player in 'la-la' land."
Further, critics wonder why KCET, which left the PBS network after a months-long dispute over dues payments, couldn't have tapped Hollywood for more funding, talent and other industry resources.
"When it comes to local production, the station has been mostly stagnant," said Howard Rosenberg, a former television critic for the Los Angeles Times who now teaches at USC. Though he acknowledges a few exceptions, Rosenberg added, "the great irony is, you have this great creative community in Los Angeles, and KCET did very little to capitalize on the local entertainment industry."
But KCET officials, proud of their programming that included local hits like "California's Gold" and nationally distributed ones like "Tavis Smiley," maintained they were unfairly blocked from competing nationally. The PBS network greatly favored the "big three" — WETA, WGBH and WNET — which effectively formed an oligarchy that prevented not only KCET but medium and smaller PBS affiliates from grabbing prime programming hours.
Gordon Bava, the chairman of KCET's board, says the very nature of the PBS dues system made it impossible for KCET to focus on independent programming or compete with the big three, whose long-running series dominate PBS' prime-time schedule. Each of the big three stations gets a major credit against their dues for their signature shows, which air on PBS stations across the country. This gives them a sizable financial advantage that other stations simply don't have.
"Cynics, of which I am not, might argue that the entire public television system led by PBS and funded in part by CPB" — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — "primarily benefits this production oligopoly," Bava said.
Those same cynics, Bava added, might argue that PBS gives the big three stations the lion's share of the lucrative national program schedule and with it a predictable stream of production dollars. Meanwhile, the CPB awards local stations with community grants, ensuring that they'll provide national distribution. If that theory is true, Bava said, "it may explain why PBS refused to provide any real financial concession or direct any production projects for new national programming to KCET."
PBS officials rejected this idea. "Nothing prohibited KCET from becoming a highly productive producer in the PBS system," insisted a PBS representative. "All avenues were open to them." (PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger declined to comment.)
Another area in which KCET didn't keep pace with the leading PBS affiliates was its balance sheet. Compared with peers such as New York's WNET, KCET has a small endowment and therefore little cushion to fall back on during tough times. Tax returns from 2008 — the most recent available — show that KCET earned investment income of just $202,253. WNET.org, the parent company of WNET, earned $7.9 million in investment income for the year ending June 30, 2008.
Also, KCET's endowment stands at $4.9 million, according to Debbi Hinton, the station's chief financial officer. That's considerably less than the stockpiles of some other PBS stations in large markets. For example, Washington, D.C.'s WETA, which produces "NewsHour" and the popular Ken Burns specials, has an endowment of $8.6 million, said Mary Stewart, the station's vice president of external affairs.
But even that's modest compared with WNET, the most-watched PBS station in the country. WNET, which produces " Charlie Rose" and "Great Performances" among other series, has an endowment that stands at about $90 million, according to station spokeswoman Kellie Specter. (The money also helps support a sister station, WLIW-TV.)
Endowments are a common feature among nonprofits and are especially important for public TV stations, which often use the investment income to help develop new programming (officials typically try to avoid spending the principal funds in an endowment except in emergency cases). From the money it earns off its endowment, for example, WETA spends a sum equal to about 4% of the principal — or roughly $350,000 — to help develop new shows.
Asked about KCET's endowment, which the station estimates at $4.9 million, Pete Weitzner, a longtime business journalist who teaches broadcast journalism at Chapman University said, "That's not much for the second-largest market. Knowing that you've only got 5 million in the bank, that usually gets you to the place where you say, 'What can we cut?'"
Veteran California journalist and author Lou Cannon argues the station could have helped its bottom line had it been more aggressive about courting the local community. "Viewers are not consulted, much less valued, at KCET," he said. "At WGBH in Boston, they're forever asking their viewers what types of programs they want to see more of, and they have a vibrant connection with the Boston community. But I've given to KCET for 20 years, and they've never asked me which programs I do or don't want to watch. If they had more viewer loyalty, then whenever they got into a pickle, they could ask for more money and they'd get it."
But now that KCET is poised to pull away from PBS, it will get the chance to distinguish itself from the pack. In October, Jerome announced that the Ahmanson Foundation, which already supports such KCET programs as "SoCal Connected," will give the station $1 million to facilitate its conversion to an independent entity.
In the meantime, Jerome said, stations around the country are waiting to see what happens next. KCET's move to cut ties with PBS marked the first time a station in a major market has left the network.
"These other public television stations are watching what we're doing here in Los Angeles," he said. "They're wanting to know whether we can make a go of it."