Amid ongoing speculation that KCET may break away from PBS, representatives from the four Los Angeles-area PBS affiliates met Wednesday to discuss a restructuring plan that would prevent the nation's second-largest media market from losing its flagship public television station.
The plan explored calls for the KCET to form a consortium with Orange County's KOCE, the Inland Empire's KVCR and the Los Angeles school district's KLCS. The stations then would save money by reducing programming overlap, cross promoting, and better coordinating fundraisers.
For months, KCET executives have warned that they may sever ties with the national network and become an independent station if the station's annual payment to PBS cannot be lowered. PBS officials have stated KCET pays about the same rate as other stations and has given no indication it intends to adjust the station's dues.
Despite KCET's threats to leave the network, KOCE-TV's President and Chief Executive Mel Rogers said Wednesday after the meeting that a complete break is unlikely.
"Both sides have too much to lose" if KCET and PBS part ways, he said. "If I were betting, I wouldn't bet that KCET would leave PBS," he continued. "I believe it would be best for public TV, the viewers in this area and the market for KCET to continue at some level."
However, if KCET does leave PBS, KOCE would "step into the breach," Rogers said, and would provide more PBS programming than it does currently. Its schedule is made up of about 25% PBS-provided programming; the rest is acquired and locally produced.
KCET's chief executive, Al Jerome, could not be reached for comment about Wednesday's discussions. The meeting, held at KOCE's Huntington Beach headquarters, had apparently been scheduled more than a month ago.
"It's historically been every man for himself, but that doesn't work in this environment," Larry Ciecalone, general manager and president of KVCR in San Bernardino, said Wednesday. "We want to program these stations jointly so we can really super-serve the viewers."
If a consortium plan were adopted, it would put all four public TV stations on equal footing, rather than the traditional PBS model of having a primary, then one or more secondary stations. Such a configuration, though, represents a sticking point for PBS, which would probably have less money flowing into its coffers as a result.
While the stations in the group have always been competitors, the recession and drastic reductions in vital corporate underwriting and donations have drawn them together.
KCET is the biggest PBS station, with nearly 9 million viewers, in the country's second-biggest media market. Of its $40-million budget, KCET pays out about $7 million in programming fees to PBS, a 40% increase over the last several years. The station has laid off employees, shrinking its staff from 170 to 132, cutting salaries and pension contributions. The station is expecting a $10-million hit to its budget this year.
The group will try to meet again in November, with a spot at the table reserved for KCET.
"We're not spending a lot of time thinking about what this consortium would be like without them because we hope they're still part of it," Ciecalone said.