How KCET finally gave up on PBS

In the world of public television it was nothing short of the nuclear option, and frankly, PBS honchos never thought it would happen. But as I point out in the April issue of Los Angeles magazine, KCET's decision to end its affiliation with the network only came after lots of negotiating - and frustration. High membership dues ($7 million a year) were behind the pullout, but there was more to it than that.

KCET's showdown with PBS wasn't about creative disagreements but money, specifically $50 million worth of grants for producing "A Place of Our Own." In PBS's crazy-quilt way of doing things, the more funding that a station is awarded for a specific program, the higher the membership dues. Over four years KCET's bill went from $4.9 million a year to $7 million. "They know these dues are punitive--they just don't change them," says [KCET CEO Al] Jerome. PBS head Paula Kerger wasn't made available for an interview, but a spokeswoman said that the "lost dues would have to be recovered from other stations, which would place an unfair financial burden on the rest of the system." The spokeswoman also said that the station had been given "unprecedented flexibility and assistance" in making payments. KCET's bellyaching, in other words, was not justified.

The thing is, KCET really did get ripped off, but in ways that go beyond membership dues or East Coast bias. The ultimate culprits were three other PBS affiliates in the L.A. area. Those stations--KOCE, KVCR in San Bernardino, and KLCS, which is owned by the L.A. Unified School District--had been operating as secondary affiliates, which meant they could air 25 percent of the PBS schedule as long as they waited eight days after shows were first broadcast. In return the stations were charged a fraction of what KCET had to pay. So KCET was shelling out more money and losing viewers in the process--not exactly a great deal.

So what now? Well, the station is hanging in there, but not easily. Viewership nosedived after the switchover in early 2011, and has only started to come back. As of last fall, an average of only 10,000 people were watching KCET at some point during the day; KABC had an average of 165,000 viewers. Prime time isn't quite as bad, due in part to the popular British dramedy Doc Martin, with viewership off 27 percent. As usual, underwriting is a big problem:

U.S. Bank's sponsorship of "SoCal Connected" expired in October and has yet to be renewed (production has been suspended until more funding comes through). In some ways this is the hand-to-mouth conundrum that KCET has always faced--except now there's no PBS to lean on and a number of larger contributors are antsy. "I'd be disingenuous if I told you we weren't disappointed," says Fred Ali, chief executive of the Weingart Foundation, an L.A.-based nonprofit that paid for a communications center at the old headquarters containing $8 million worth of broadcast equipment--much of which will be kept by the Scientologists as part of the sale. The foundation has no plans to finance additional equipment for the new offices. In 2011, its first year of independence, KCET reported $22.3 million in revenue from contributions and grants, down from $37.6 million in 2010.

KCET will be moving to its new Burbank offices over the weekend.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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