Since KCET-TV Channel 28 left the PBS network in January, one big question was how the newly independent public station could find unique programs to replace well-known shows like “Charlie Rose” and “Sesame Street.” Now it’s hoping to take a big step toward that goal with an entrepreneurial partnership that could be worth as much as $50 million.
The station announced Tuesday that it will team with Dominique Bigle, a former Walt Disney Co. executive and the chief executive of an Encino-based visual-effects and production company called Eyetronics Media & Studios, to make and acquire original series about Southern California. KCET says it hopes to start producing the first five shows by the end of the year.
The KCET programs will celebrate “the vibrancy of Southern California’s people, places, and culture, as well as its history,” the station said in a release. While not offering titles or specifics, executives said the first batch of shows under the agreement will be nonfiction and cover such topics as food, technology and entertainment. Further details will be forthcoming within several weeks, they added.
“We’re going to be launching production in the late fall and KCET is going to be adding staff,” station chief Al Jerome said in an interview. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Explaining what prompted him to back KCET, Bigle said: “I’m always trying to invest in entertainment assets, present and future. When I read the article about KCET splitting from the PBS network, I said, ‘This is an incredible opportunity to bring high-value production to Los Angeles, to California and to distribute it all over the country and also for the international market.’”
But the new alliance is fraught with challenges.
Although KCET is the nation’s largest independent public broadcasting station, its track record as a program producer is limited. During its PBS days, the station produced “A Place of Our Own,” a series aimed at preschool caregivers that was distributed nationally. Talk host Tavis Smiley also tapes his program at the station’s Silver Lake facility, which was sold earlier this year to the Church of Scientology. The station is due to move its offices and studios to a Burbank office tower next year.
But KCET historically made far fewer original shows than other PBS member stations in large cities, such as WNET-TV in New York (“American Masters,” “Live From Lincoln Center”) and WGBH-TV in Boston (“Frontline,” “This Old House”).
KCET officials had blamed their sparse roster partly on a PBS system that is designed to keep long-established programs on the schedule and allows little room for new shows.
Meanwhile, Bigle’s Eyetronics makes a seemingly unlikely partner for a public broadcaster. The company has kept a low profile in the entertainment industry, although according to its website it has helped provide visual effects for movies such as “Priest” and “Marmaduke” and TV series such as “The Vampire Diaries” and “Heroes” and has been especially active in 3-D scanning and modeling.
The company recently launched “Classic Cool,” a retro brand based on its acquisition of vintage newsreels, documentaries and other 20th century memorabilia, which KCET intends to tap in developing programming. But Eyetronics otherwise has no reputation as a program producer or distributor, nor is it well-versed in the byzantine world of public broadcasting, where outlets are governed by nonprofit and FCC rules and do not operate as freely as typical entertainment assets.
Bigle said that in Europe, public TV stations are recognized for high-budget dramatic, news and sports productions. He was puzzled that Southern California local television didn’t match the community’s impressive commitments in opera, classical music and other arts. “In terms of television, it was missing,” Bigle said.
“We are securing big names, big signatures,” he promised. “We want to do big events in terms of programming.” A well-known European producer will join the venture to oversee the new programs, which will eventually encompass scripted entertainment as well, Bigle added.
KCET will produce the programs and co-own the output with Eyetronics, which will have the right to sell the programs overseas. The venture isn’t ruling out seeking additional partners as well. “This is just what we put on the table,” Bigle said.
Bigle is the son of Armand Bigle, who helped oversee Disney’s expansion into Europe. Jerome said he met Bigle through Steve Unger, an executive recruiter, and the pair had been talking for months about a deal.
KCET left PBS after months of disputes over dues and other issues. Many of the programs the station has aired this year are either reruns, such as the old British crime series “Prime Suspect,” or general-interest news shows from overseas providers, such as Al Jazeera or Japan’s NHK.
The deal is KCET’s largest cash infusion for new programming since a $50-million partnership with oil giant BP and other donors led to a “A Place of Our Own,” the preschool caregiver show.