KCET and PBS SoCal agree to merge

kcet-rehearsal-control.jpgKCET's Burbank control room. LA Observed photo.

After both struggling along for years as the public TV version of competitors, the station that used to be the PBS flagship in Los Angeles — KCET — and the current flagship — PBS SoCal, or KOCE — are going to combine into one larger entity. In the "merger of equals" announced today, KCET's chairman, Dick Cook, will become chairman of the new joint board of directors, but PBS SoCal's CEO, Andrew Russell, will run the combined operation. For now, at least, the stations will continue to air their separate programming just as now, but PBS SoCal will have a place in the Burbank studios of KCET.

From Current, which covers public broadcasting:

The new organization will be debt-free and boast an $80 million endowment, thanks to the stations’ participation in last year’s FCC spectrum auction, according to PBS SoCal’s Andrew Russell, who will run the new entity as CEO.

The merger agreement “opens a new future for public television in Southern California,” Russell said....

Both stations already had lean staffs, and Russell believes their combined skills are complimentary. “There is not a lot of overlap, [which] is one of the great reasons we are coming together,” Russell told Current. “It’s a merger about growth. … We can see a future where we add people.” Each of the stations operate with staff of about 65 employees, he said.

From the LA Times story:

The consolidation, announced Wednesday, will bring together two nonprofit organizations with separate strengths and programming philosophies. KCETLink Media Group, which runs the Los Angeles station, has long enjoyed a prominent profile in the community, but its 2010 decision to sever ties with the national Public Broadcasting Service proved to be a costly blunder.

Orange County's KOCE-TV picked up the PBS affiliation and its award-winning programming and branded itself as PBS SoCal. But over the years, it too has struggled to win acceptance and prime channel locations from pay-TV operators that would enhance its exposure and fundraising might. Both stations have been hampered by lingering confusion in the market about their roles and programming.

"This merger has been in the works for many, many years," said Dick Cook, chairman of KCET's board, who will become chairman of the combined entity when the deal closes this summer. "There is a time and a place for everything, and this is the time, the right moment, for these two great institutions to come together."

The LAT story says that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had prodded the two stations to unite. "Merger talks began three years ago but were put on hold because of the Federal Communications Commission's spectrum auction last year," the LAT says. KCET brought in about $65 million in the auction, KOCE about $49 million.

No layoffs are apparently planned right away at the new non-profit entity. KCET's chief, Michael Riley, left in February to join a venture led by Ellen DeGeneres.

KCET has a few locally produced shows that are far superior to anything that PBS SoCal originates. "SoCal Connected," the news and investigative program, is a perennial award winner for KCET. "Artbound," which explores the art and creative community in Southern California, and "Migrant Kitchen," which focuses on people inside the local food and restaurant scene, are both really ambitious, well-produced shows. "Lost L.A.," which takes off from local history to tell stories about the region, is newer and very well done. It grew out of a feature on the KCET website, which for years has been posting pretty great content about Los Angeles, if maybe with a fairly narrow audience target.

PBS SoCal, in contrast, gets to run the PBS slate of shows (and benefited from the "Downton Abbey" phenomenon just as the station became the local flagship) and picks up some nice documentaries out of the region. But its plans to expand into Los Angeles with new programming never took off. There's been little that is memorable out of PBS SoCal, on air or online, since they became the luckiest public TV station in existence when KCET bolted from PBS in 2010 over the amount of dues it had to pay to the national umbrella. That move elevated KOCE from an Orange County niche station on channel 50 into the top slot on SoCal's PBS schedule.

KCET was a pioneer in public broadcasting when it started in 1964 and became a major player in local media on channel 28. The years since it split from PBS were difficult financially. The station where Huell Howser made his mark sold its longtime home in a historic movie studio on Sunset Boulevard and moved in 2012 to an office building in Burbank, with plenty of room to expand. That expansion never came.

A critical report in CJR last January said that "KCET’s great experiment with independence has largely flopped. Donations have plummeted. Financial records from [the most recent available year] put the company’s losses at more than $19 million on revenue of nearly $68 million." The story also said that KCET was inflating its ratings and had frittered away the proceeds from the sale of the Sunset Boulevard studio. Riley left as CEO the following month.

Still a lot of questions about the future of both stations and how this will work in practice, but this merger appears to save them from fading away as funding for public broadcasting gets tighter.

From the press release:

KCETLink Media Group (KCET), a leading national independent broadcast and digital network, and PBS SoCal (KOCE), the flagship PBS organization for Southern California, today announced an agreement to merge the two companies. The merger of equals creates a center for public media innovation and creativity that serves the more than 18 million people living in the Southern California region. The name of the new organization will be announced with the closing of the merger, which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2018.

Establishing a powerful PBS flagship organization on the West Coast, the historic union of these two storied institutions creates the opportunity to produce more original programs for multiple channels and platforms that address the diverse community in Southern California and the nation, and innovate new community engagement experiences that educate, inform, entertain, and empower.

KCET Board of Directors Chairman Dick Cook will serve as Board Chair, and PBS SoCal President and CEO Andrew Russell will be President and CEO of the new entity, which will be governed by a 32-person Board of Trustees composed of the 14 members from each of the boards of KCETLink and PBS SoCal, as well as four new Board appointees.

“Fifty years ago, a surge of innovation and inspiration created public television as we know it today,” said KCETLink Board Chair Dick Cook and Jim McCluney, Chairman of the PBS SoCal Board of Trustees, in a joint statement. “In this dynamic time for media, this is exactly the right moment to marry the complementary core strengths of each of our organizations. Our new company combines PBS SoCal's beloved quality programming and community engagement excellence with KCETLink's passion for creating smart, original content that captures the spirit of the region. We are very excited to advance content creation in public media and continue to successfully implement innovative technologies to reach new and diverse audiences.”

“We believe our calling – to tell stories that matter – is essential, and will become even more so in the future,” said Mr. Russell. “Southern California is a global center for innovation, a trend-setter, and home to the world’s foremost creative talent. Together, we will tell more stories that matter, and better serve our region – one of the most diverse places in the country - and our nation.”

Over the past seven years, PBS SoCal and KCETLink have built two unique public media institutions — each making significant contributions to the advancement of public media. Together, they form a vibrant and financially strong public media institution, ensuring future generations have access to all its vital services.

The newly merged organization will also play a unique role within PBS.

“We are pleased that this merger will bring the combined forces of KCETLink and PBS SoCal together to serve the people of Southern California with high-quality PBS content and services,” said PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger. “We know this new entity will be a great partner to PBS and will help strengthen the broader public television system.”

“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is pleased that our longstanding goal and efforts to encourage the merger of public television stations KCET and KOCE will be realized," said Pat Harrison, CPB President and CEO. “As a result, citizens in Greater Los Angeles, and across Southern California, will benefit from the combined strengths and capacities of these two stations—especially the increased ability to produce content for diverse local audiences as well as national audiences."

The new organization will continue to operate from KCET’s and PBS SoCal’s existing Southern California locations in Burbank, Costa Mesa and Los Angeles. There will be no immediate changes to broadcast operations or program schedules on any of the stations’ channels during the merger transition period. The merger process was led by committees within the Boards of each organization with PBS SoCal’s Committee chaired by Marc Stern and KCETLink’s Committee chaired by Gordon Bava.

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