Independent KCET savors big ambitions, makes slow progress

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Halfway through its planned three-year transition from one of PBS’ leading outlets to an independent public television station in the world capital of film and television production, the new KCET is still very much a work in progress.

Al Jerome speakingThe Los Angeles station sold its old Sunset Boulevard studio to the Church of Scientology and moved into new studios across the street from NBC in Burbank. Its primetime ratings have rebounded, a revamp of has bolstered traffic to its website and the station is earning plaudits for its local arts initiatives. But daytime ratings are a fraction of what they were, and financing for its ambitious slate of new productions has yet to be secured.

When KCET abruptly quit PBS in January 2011 after a rift over the high price of PBS dues, reactions in the public television world varied wildly. Most pubTV execs leaders questioned whether KCET could make a go of it without the likes of Sesame Street and Masterpiece to bring in viewers and pledges. But, privately, a few colleagues rooted for KCET chief Al Jerome to succeed, and considered whether it made sense to follow suit.

KCET’s gambit came at a unique time in public broadcasting’s digital transition. With public-interest advocates clamoring for public radio and television stations alike to more directly engage their local communities, KCET had a perfect open slate with which to comply.

If only it were so easy.

After the transition, KCET quickly moved to replace pubTV news mainstays PBS NewsHour and Nightly Business Report with a variety of newscasts targeting Los Angeles’ diverse ethnic communities. Viewers responded: The average quarter-hour audience for the news block in the first quarter of 2012 was 28 percent higher than the previous year’s ratings for the same time period. (And Nightly Business Report returned to the schedule after PBS stopped distributing it.)

Coincidental with its break from PBS, KCET got the welcome news that its half-hour local newsmagazine SoCal Connected had won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in journalism. But the award, one of many for the program in recent years, didn’t lead to more funding. KCET shut down production of new episodes a few weeks earlier than usual this past year, after losing U.S. Bank as a corporate sponsor, Jerome said.

The underwriting challenge is not unique to KCET. Sponsorship revenues of local public TV stations dropped precipitously during the recession — from $268 million in 2008 to $181 million in 2010 (Current, Jan. 30, 2011). A systemwide revenue analysis that CPB delivered to Congress last week reported that more than 60 percent of public television and radio stations are operating with deficits today (story, page 2). But the loss of U.S. Bank’s corporate sponsorship of KCET’s flagship local news program hurt the station at a particularly critical time.

KCET took other revenue hits after its split from PBS. It ended fiscal 2011 — which covered the first six months of operations as an independent station — with $22.3 million in revenue from contributions and grants, a 41 percent drop from $37.6 million the previous year.

The rupture reportedly undercut the station’s relationships with local philanthropists, although Jerome disputes news accounts reporting disaffection with KCET’s new strategy. In a feature published in April, Los Angeles Magazine quoted Fred Ali, chief executive of the Weingart Foundation, expressing disappointment with KCET’s sale of the studio, for which the foundation had paid for some broadcast equipment. In the same month, the Los Angeles Times reported that three anonymous local nonprofit executives “had eschewed giving or partnerships with KCET because of their concerns.”

Jerome said those published statements don’t line up with his experience raising money for KCET. Major gifts and foundation grants have largely held up, he added.

One key backer, the Ahmanson Foundation, which gave KCET a $1 million grant to help finance the transition to independence, remains supportive. “It’s a bold and courageous thing that KCET has done and, like many groundbreaking endeavors, it takes time,” said Bill Ahmanson, president. “To think they can do an about-face in 30, 60, 90 days is not a realistic expectation.”

Jerome acknowledged that membership faltered “a little bit more than we expected,” although he declined to share numbers.

Early this year membership began inching back up. In March, some 900 people who hadn’t donated to the station in two years gave money, he said.

The uptick came after KCET, which had done most of its direct-mail solicitations in-house, downsized its staff and outsourced much of the operation to Pasadena direct mail vendor Russ Reid. The agency, which specializes in nonprofits, developed new creative, including a solicitation for the popular Brit import Doc Martin.

KCET is now above its membership targets, Jerome said, adding, “Is it where we need to be? No. But it’s going in the right direction.”

Doc Martin, a comedic drama series airing on many public TV stations through American Public Television distribution, played a big role in reviving KCET’s primetime ratings as well. In the fourth quarter of 2011, it was the top-rated public TV show in the market — beating the entire PBS lineup now broadcast by KOCE, the Orange County station that replaced KCET as the PBS flagship in Los Angeles.

KCET’s entire lineup of acquired programs has continued to perform well. The station’s primetime ratings for the first quarter of 2012 measured 34,000 viewers in the average quarter hour, according to Nielsen figures. That’s just below the 35,000 the station had in the first quarter of 2010, its last year under PBS.

Local shows go artsy and web-first

Although SoCal Connected went into production hiatus earlier than usual, smaller local productions, including several around various cultural history months, have proved more fundable. A new project called Artbound attracted a two-year $200,000 grant from the LA County Arts Commission and $62,000 from the city of Los Angeles.

KCET describes the project as a “transmedia cultural journalism initiative exploring Southern California’s dynamic cultural landscape.” The interactive website, which launched May 7, invites readers to rate articles by local arts experts, and the most popular are produced as short-form online video documentaries. The most popular will be packaged into a new TV series that debuts in August. In its first month, Artbound received 58,000 unique page views, making it the station’s best online launch.

KCET’s grant application for LA County Arts Commission funding “scored very high,” said Executive Director Laura Zucker, “because the panel was excited, as we all are, for locally based programming, particularly around arts and culture issues.”

Crowdsourcing cultural stories that eventually work their way up to an on-air broadcast are “a totally new model that works in the forefront of the participatory arts space,” Zucker said.

The commission entered another partnership with KCET last year to broadcast Live @ the Ford, presenting performances from a historic outdoor amphitheatre operated by the commission.

The programs “attracted a tremendous audience,” Zucker said, demonstrating “how hungry L.A. arts audiences were for programming that reflected them.”

KCET and the commission have worked together for 52 years on an annual live holiday celebration, but past Ford Theatre productions aired on a local cable channel, according to Zucker. The archival tapings were “very straightforward and not very technically sophisticated,” she said, adding that “part of everyone’s frustration was that there was actually very little programming time available on KCET” prior to its departure from PBS.

The new partnership, she said, “just ratcheted the whole thing up to another level” and will be renewed.

KCET has also seen steady ratings growth for its weekly Thursday Open Call primetime arts series, which debuted in March. The anthology series showcases work from local arts production partners. Actor Joe Mantegna brought the station comedic short films called “Quick Bites”; the series also includes documentaries such as the upcoming “Opening Night,” from Growing Pains creator Dan Guntzelman, about a local theater group.

Like other public stations, KCET has been experimenting online and migrating to air content that resonates with Web audiences, including a hyper-local tourism feature “Departures.” An ambitious series on the challenges of eldercare, called Your Turn to Care, started as Web segments and became four national specials, rolling out this summer to about 70 stations lined up so far through APT.

With vastly more original content — including, for the first time, live results for a recent election — the reworked website doubled visits in the first quarter from a year earlier; page views were up 53 percent. Jerome called it “a distinct shift from when we were PBS,” when most of the web content supported national shows.

But more ambitious projects haven’t fared as well. KCET has produced nine episodes of an interview show hosted by former sportscaster Roy Firestone, with two more on the way. Without a funder it can’t move into the nightly slot which Jerome had hoped for.

A much-touted $50 million production partnership with former Disney executive Dominique Bigle for five new programs has generated only one series so far, called Classic Cool Theater, culled from Bigle’s library of old films. KCET and Bigle are moving forward with a redefined business plan, according to Ariel Carpenter, KCET spokesperson.

Jerome acknowledged that the partnership has taken longer than expected to deliver new shows, but said he’s confident that more programs, including Ocean Alive featuring environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, will come to fruition. “The development process is the development process,” he said.

Despite the programming setbacks, Jerome insists that KCET’s plans are on-target. Sale of the studio lot had been a top priority. Moving into the new office, he said, with its open architecture and conventional and virtual studios “is a real culture change.”

This year, he promised, KCET will “roll out some of the programming that’s going to distinguish us, and by the third year we will have reconstituted the funding base. It’s tough to really do without the programming.”