The future of KCET


KCET-TV pushes into its second year of independence from PBS with a new headquarters, a new slogan and new pledges about the thoughtful and provocative shows it will produce about Southern California. “Where the story really gets good,” the fresh tag line declares. Management hopes it also applies to KCET’s attempts to go it alone as one of the nation’s handful of independent public television stations.

Chief Executive Al Jerome said in a recent interview that KCET was making “really good progress” in its three-year plan to create a winning destination without public TV name brands such as “Sesame Street,” “NewsHour” and the hit”Downton Abbey.”

Where Jerome and his top staff see steady progress, though, critics inside and outside the station see a sluggish old media franchise that is spending lavishly on its new studio in Burbank (fully occupied as of this week), burdened with a top-heavy management and slow to launch new shows to replace the familiar old ones.

KCET’s biggest in-house production, the award-winning “SoCal Connected” news magazine, went on hiatus this spring earlier than in some past years, due to a paucity of funding. A partnership with onetime Walt Disney executive Dominique Bigle, which promised a new jolt of vitality and five new programs, so far has resulted in rebroadcasts of old movies (“Classic Cool Theater”) and initial work on a modern history series (“Retrostory”) that relies on Bigle’s library of films and newsreels. Three other shows, including one featuring ocean environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, remain conceptual.

Though revenue has fallen precipitously, the station has gotten relatively good news lately on viewership — with its prime-time ratings approaching what they were before it dumped PBS on Jan. 1, 2011. (KCET bolted because of what it called excessive dues.) The station has also won some praise for its online operation, particularly the magazine-like “Departures,” which offers video, photos and maps as part of its coverage of L.A. communities.

The issues confronting KCET come against the backdrop of a general decline for public television — so much so that in 2010, two-thirds of stations spent more money than they took in. That unhappy trend and yearly dues of $6 million to PBSprompted KCET’s leaders to strike out on their own. But their mistake, some observers believe, was in making the leap before developing a full menu of alternative programs.

“There is no way, absolutely no way, that KCET can survive as a television station,” said Jack Shakely, former head of the giant California Community Foundation, which once contributed to KCET programs and pledge drives. “They are like the book store that opens just when all other book stores are awash in red ink, a book store that cannot sell bestsellers, can’t sell popular classics, sells books you’ve never heard of and then asks you to contribute to the book store anyway.”

Three other executives at prominent Los Angeles nonprofits, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate the station’s executives, said they had eschewed giving or partnerships with KCET because of their concerns.

Jerome and KCET’s leadership argue that they have built a plausible interim schedule, including a nightly news bloc with international contributions from the BBC, Al Jazeera English and others. New popular “sellers” are on the way, they said.

But it’s difficult to make new programs without the funding that came with the larger audience the station once had. KCET’s 14,000 average viewers during its full-day schedule, in the first three months of this year, represents just half of its 2010 audience. After a precipitous dip, the station’s prime-time audience has recovered to an average 34,000, just shy of its 2010 level.

(Orange County-based PBS SoCal, formerly KOCE, is now the PBS flagship station for the region. It’s average prime-time audience of 37,000 already exceeds what KCET logged in prime-time for a similar period, while its full-day audience still lags significantly behind.)

Contributions and grants took a 41% dive in 2011 to $22.3 million, according to the station’s financial statement. Without providing figures, the station said revenue had “steadily been climbing” this year.

Although KCET has announced lots of ideas for new programs, it so far has gone forward mostly with ones that can be made on the cheap. The station has aired “Open Call,” a show that mostly relies on arts and cultural organizations to produce their own programs. KCET has also aired nine episodes of a new interview show hosted by onetime local sportscaster Roy Firestone, but the station still needs an underwriter to make the program permanent.

Bigle and his Eyetronics Media and Studios reported that three episodes of the historical “Retrostory” (on Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and the authors of the “Lost Generation”) are in production. Bigle continues to seek “pre-sales and co-production” deals overseas for Cousteau’s “Ocean Alive.”

The French producer, who has lived in California for more than a decade, detailed obstacles: mostly in finding ways to recoup his future investment, but even down to the challenge of tracking down the world-traveling Cousteau, son of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. “The guy is always on a plane,” Bigle said.

A source familiar with the Cousteau operation, who declined to be named for fear of unsettling the collaboration, said the production delay was entirely due to a lack of financing.

KCET’s leadership argues that the path to new production and winning collaborations will be smoothed by the station’s new headquarters and broadcasting facility. As of Monday, the staff of 114 completed its move to two floors in a 14-story office adjacent to the NBC studios in Burbank. The facility features a studio with three robotic cameras and a “green-screen virtual reality set” that allows the projection of backgrounds without building costly sets.

Some station employees, who requested anonymity so as not to alienate management, worry about the price tag. KCET netted $28.8 million when it sold its historic lot on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake to the Church of Scientology in April 2011. Insiders said they had been told that it cost as much as $19 million for equipment and retrofitting of the new Burbank headquarters. And the station is paying a reported $25 million over 11 years to lease the Burbank space. The critics wondered why KCET didn’t stretch the property sale proceeds by moving to a more modest perch.

While declining to comment on specific costs associated with the move, Jerome contended that there would also be long-term savings. He said operating costs would drop by an estimated $1.65 million a year, in part because the station wouldn’t maintain its own security, maintenance and cafeteria.

Another perennial point of contention between KCET and its critics has been the number of executives the station has kept on the payroll, even during hard times. Jerome made $440,000 annually, according to the last public report, and several of nine others at the rank of vice president or above make more than $200,000.

Jerome said the managers perform multiple jobs and more than earn their keep. As the overall staff has decreased, he said, four executive positions have been eliminated. He failed to note, though, that two other management jobs have been added, with a third — chief marketing officer — soon to join them.

Ernest Wilson, dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said it had been a long-standing “oddity” that KCET couldn’t generate more of its own programs “here in the heart of content production for the entire planet Earth.” Wilson served on the board of theCorp. for Public Broadcasting, which funnels federal appropriations to public radio and television, from 2000 to 2010, the last year as chairman.

Several KCET board members, including Chairman Channing D. Johnson, did not return phone calls. One, who asked not to be named, said KCET “may be having problems” but that they had been anticipated.

It remained for production partner Bigle to wax about a grand future. He said another “big” announcement was in the offing. “It’s a structural deal, it’s a vision, it’s a lot of international, it’s a lot of other public television and a lot, a lot, a lot of KCET.” And when is this big breakthrough coming? “Very, very soon.”

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