Critic’s notebook: Will KCET keep its pledge?

That broadcast television is fundamentally a local medium has been made clear by the case of KCET, which has just declared its independence from PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. This ends a relationship that goes back more than four decades, a relationship that began, indeed, with the network’s predecessor, NET (for National Educational Television), in the days when cutting-edge TV technology meant the UHF tuner required to bring the station in. (We called it “Channel 28" in those pre-cable days.) This means no more “Sesame Street,” " Frontline,” “Great Performances,” “Masterpiece,” “Nova,” “Nature” or “PBS NewsHour” on KCET. Not even any more “Tavis Smiley,” though the station actually produces that series

PBS, for its part, was quick to assert that even without KCET its programs would be available in Los Angeles. Orange County’s KOCE, which, like KCET, has a transmitter atop Mt. Wilson and whose schedule runs to old sitcoms and movies, local sports and a smaller portion of PBS programming, has declared itself ready to pick up the mantle that KCET has let drop.

FOR THE RECORD: KCET: A critic’s notebook in the Oct. 13 Calendar about the future of public-TV station KCET stated that Orange County PBS affiliate KOCE broadcasts old sitcoms, movies and local sports among its mix of programs. It does not. KOCE carries a variety of public television programming, including such PBS staples as “Sesame Street,” “Nova,” “This Old House” and “Antiques Roadshow.”

The cause is a dispute over fees. The short version is that, keyed to a past major fundraising success, KCET’s PBS membership dues were raised to and fixed at a point that the station could not continue to meet, and that none of its proposed alternatives, including lower dues, were acceptable to PBS.


And so, after Jan. 1, 2011, KCET will present itself anew, as an independent community-supported station whose programming particulars exist so far mostly as empty phrases: “high quality professionally produced programming representing the genres our audience expects from us drawn from national and international sources,” “content acquired and produced specifically with our audience in mind,” an “exciting and challenging journey.” It is a “work in progress,” KCET Chief Executive Al Jerome posted on the station’s website, to be realized in concert “with the local creative community, which is world renown[ed] as the source of great entertainment.”

“KCET will now be better positioned to serve our community,” he wrote — a laudable end and, indeed, a required one: All broadcast media are licensed with the promise to serve its community.

I don’t know whether Jerome deserves the now-controversial hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s paid a year to run the station because I have never run a television station myself. But considering that this is a city of many millions and the source of much other television, KCET has always struck me as something of an underperformer in terms of its productions, especially as compared with busier, nationally recognized cousins such as Boston’s WGBH and New York’s WNET. And its on-air pledge drives, which more and more often seem to be built around music from the far end of the Boomer generation, can make the station seem sclerotic and out of touch.

It also strikes me as strange that at no time before the announcement of this impending divorce did management address the station’s supporters (and those hitchhiking viewers who might have become supporters), and say, “We’re in a crisis, and if you believe in what we’re doing here, we need your help to continue” — that would seem to be Nonprofit 101 — rather than announcing the split as an accomplished and irrevocable fact. But perhaps that would have been to chance a failure more telling — to be rejected by your audience — than that of being unable to convince a remote and powerful corporation to cut you some slack.

That rejection is, of course, still a possibility. If, as the station has claimed, the economic downturn had made it difficult for KCET to raise the money PBS demanded from it, will it be any easier, without the lure of an “Antiques Roadshow” or “American Masters,” to raise the money to realize this unrevealed new vision? One can easily imagine, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, a vicious circle of diminishing returns, in which cheaper programming leads to fewer pledges, which in turn leads to even cheaper programming, which leads to fewer pledges. Rather than being asked to pay for more of what they know they want, viewers are, for the moment, being asked to buy a pig in a poke, to put faith in a plan proposed by people in whom they have no convincing reason to put their faith.

At the same time, it’s pointless to predict failure; indeed, except to satisfy some petulant desire to punish whomever we might imagine responsible for this state of affairs, we should root for success. Increased local coverage and community engagement are laudable goals; they always were. A healthy, productive and engaged local television station would be a marvelous thing — miraculous, even, in the current broadcast climate. Imagine a real alternative to the gruesome joke that is local TV news, or local children’s programming physically available to local children. Something new and unpredictable, and popular, might come out of this. But whether the people now in charge of KCET are the people to realize this project is a legitimate and open question.

The bulletins from KCET can sound a little like a captain standing on the bridge of his just-scuttled ship — flagship, if you will — enthusing to his passengers about how great it’s going to be to get to see the fish up close. Perhaps there’ll be treasure at the bottom of that sea, or just old tires and sand. We are going to have to see when we get there.

KCET is dead; long live KCET.