Choose your Hollywood metaphor: a Cinderella story, an understudy thrust into a starring role or a character-actor-turned-leading-man.
All are aptly dramatic for the unique story of KOCE, a small PBS station in Southern California that stepped into the limelight as a PBS flagship for the nation’s second-largest television market.
KOCE was called to recast itself as a public television powerhouse six years ago after top-billed KCET stormed off the set. This was not a change that could occur overnight, with a wave of a magic wand. The station had to tackle many legacy issues — competition for the loyalty of PBS viewers, weak branding and limited capacity in production and technology — day by day.
The station stepped up, emerging from its secondary status as KOCE, a local PBS affiliate in Orange County serving 3 million people, to become PBS SoCal, serving 18 million across the greater Los Angeles area.
In late 2010, with only three months to prepare for the shift, KOCE embarked on an ambitious years-long technical and conceptual transformation, overhauling its physical plant, its transmission capabilities, its management team and its brand. And its programming ambitions gradually expanded as its producers began mining the rich history and culture of Southern California for regional stories with broad appeal.
Since then revenue bounded upward, swelling to $22 million in fiscal 2016 from $10 million in 2010. Membership tripled, to 82,000 from 27,000. The station’s bottom line took hits initially, recording a net loss of $2.3 million in fiscal 2013, its toughest post-transition year. But by fiscal 2016 it recovered to post a net income of $5.3 million.
Primetime ratings doubled (from 0.3 in 2010 to 0.6 in 2016), rivaling those earned by KCET before it left the PBS system. Daytime viewership has lagged, however, as audiences for children’s programming fell, a reflection of trends affecting other stations.
PBS SoCal built its educational division and expanded its services across the region, primarily through grant-funded Ready To Learn and American Graduate programs, and cultivated new partners and funders. Last year the station received a $1.7 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the philanthropy’s first grant to a media outlet, to launch the program To Foster Change, devoted to helping foster care youth in Southern California. The America Honda Foundation provided $75,000 to expand PBS SoCal’s educational outreach in needy Southern California communities.
Last fall it took steps to rectify one mistake from its rush to establish itself as the region’s primary PBS station. By restoring its call letters “KOCE” in a new branding campaign called “Your PBS,” the station aimed to consolidate its market position and highlight its achievements. Audience research revealed that dropping the call letters had been a bad idea.
Now the station is forging ahead on a key strategic priority to produce more content. CEO Andrew Russell plans to hire an executive as head of content, a new position to be posted this month. A lease of studio space in Los Angeles is also in the works, a move intended to engage the Hollywood creative machine.
“The untold story is the growth,” said Russell, and the “whole series of decisions” that enabled it.
Back in 2011, when KOCE moved into the primary station role, “we didn’t even have the technology to air PBS NewsHour every night directly off the satellite,” Russell recalled in an interview in KOCE’s office in Century City.
During a series of conversations last month, Russell and other station executives described their ongoing challenges to raise KOCE’s stature commensurate with its profile as the primary PBS station for a vast, diverse and media-saturated region.
Viewers ‘didn’t know where to go’
Competition for public television viewers in Los Angeles has always been fierce, and remains so today. Former rivals PBS SoCal and KCET are flanked by two additional stations, KLCS in Los Angeles and KVCR in San Bernardino. Proposed mergers and joint programming agreements have been discussed but executed only in a deep-six sense of the word. The four stations still vie with each other for viewers, partners, funders and Southern California stories.
Viewers were initially confused by KOCE’s shift to primary station — and still are, said Russell, a former executive for CPB and PBS who joined KOCE as COO in 2013, two years after the transition. The California native graduated from the University of California at Davis and earned an MBA from Stanford. He became chief executive in 2015 when longtime CEO Mel Rogers retired.
“People didn’t know what happened. …When they wanted to support a big PBS program, they didn’t know where to go,” Russell said. Viewers who had supported KCET became very cautious about donating to any public TV station, he said. “They were going to wait a little.”
PBS SoCal needed cash to upgrade its technical systems and grow its operations. Originally licensed to the Coast Community College District, the station bought its independence in 2004. It continues to pay down the $32 million cost of the acquisition.
First priority for the new flagship station was to build its capacity to deliver a top-flight PBS viewing experience. Master control operations weren’t set up to manage and pass through the full schedule of PBS programs, and KOCE’s signal wasn’t strong enough to serve the whole region. It added translators to expand its coverage to the Santa Barbara and Palm Springs DMAs.
More recently KOCE outsourced its master control operations, tapping New York–based Centralcast and reassigning affected staff to other divisions. The change eliminated costs for upgrading and replacing expensive equipment, Russell said. He intends to redirect the savings into content. KOCE also outsourced program management, tapping The Programming Service for Public Broadcasting to handle scheduling of its primary and multicast channels.
Another heavy lift was completing a multiyear process of relocating KOCE’s main headquarters from Huntington Beach to Costa Mesa, where its studio and office occupy two sprawling floors in a business park just off the 405, a major interstate highway that runs north to south through greater Los Angeles. The location is on the edge of an arts district that draws patrons to the South Coast Repertory theatre and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. South Coast Plaza, a luxury shopping mall, is also a major destination.
PBS SoCal has built community roots here by using its headquarters to host live events, open studio days and kids’ writing contests.
Workforce on the move
Expanding service into the LA market from Orange County required major adjustments in KOCE’s workplace and workforce. In addition to its Costa Mesa headquarters and office in Century City, KOCE opened an office in downtown Los Angeles and is scouting for additional sites in its coverage area, which extends as far north as Santa Barbara and to San Bernardino in the east.
Many on the staff split their time between Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, a distance of about 50 miles that can sometimes take hours on LA’s famously trafficked freeways. Alternatively, Costa Mesa is a one-hour train ride from Union Station in downtown LA and a 10-minute Uber from Santa Ana.
Marketing chief Jennifer Vides said the arrangement makes sense for now, since the staff has frequent meetings and events in both places. “It’s a matter of flexibility and convenience, [but] it means we have to be ready to be mobile.”
PBS SoCal employs a workforce of 55 — adding only five positions from its 2011 staff levels — but the mix of jobs has changed. Some staff who produced Real Orange, the nightly current events show that went off the air in 2013, departed. But others were hired in marketing, digital operations, fundraising, content, education and outreach — including the foster youth program.
Well over half of PBS SoCal’s employees, including Russell and key members of his executive team, signed on after the changeover to primary station. Jamie Annunzio Myers, COO and VP of education and community engagement, is one of the few executives who predate KOCE’s switch. She joined the station in 2009 as director of education.
Russell points to an important distinction within PBS SoCal’s staff: There are no silos separating them into different divisions. “It’s not just fundraising or education. It’s not just broadcasting and not just working in the community. It’s a blend,” he said.
Focus turns to content creation
The vibe inside PBS SoCal’s Costa Mesa headquarters one recent Tuesday morning was Southern California calm. A mounted television in the lobby showed a stream of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood voiced in Spanish.
A makeup room, green room and phone bank for pledge drives were tucked around the sleek studio where the weekly series Studio SoCal is taped, along with some segments of LAaRT and other local and pledge productions. Membership chief Maura Daly Phinney was prepping her team to fundraise around a Celtic pledge show.
Common areas and workstations for the fundraising and community engagement teams were interspersed with “brainstorming” rooms where whiteboards covered tables and walls, reflecting ambitions to become a more creative company that is increasingly focused on content.
“Los Angeles is the global center of the entertainment industry. If we can tap that, it will be great for the public television system,” said Russell.
“I spent 30 years in D.C., and they all recognized that the West Coast needed an important content producer,” Russell said, “but it never really happened.”
Not that Hollywood creatives aren’t knocking on the door. PBS SoCal gets 200 to 400 pitches a month for new shows. “There are a lot of incredibly talented people we would love to work with,” he said.
But funding for new productions is elusive. Tinseltown’s glitterati aren’t known for their support of public television. And Russell said the outpouring of ideas can be hard to translate into PBS fare.
“It’s more of a challenge than people think to get the attributes right — to develop the right kind of programming for noncommercial versus commercial television,” he said. He wants to build an in-house team that can help producers hone their ideas into workable PBS concepts.
Dan Birman, an independent documentary producer and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, has followed local public broadcasting stations for years and recognizes how difficult it is to launch national productions. “Los Angeles has never been considered a center for the arts,” he said. “It isn’t the well-heeled financial and cultural center of New York and D.C.”
“The same wealthy individuals and companies are being tapped by everybody,” Birman said. “So you have to stand out. You have to have a big vision and promise a big splash and eyeballs on a project.”
Another public television veteran warned against following the siren song of national production ambitions. Charles Allen, retired GM of Phoenix-based Arizona PBS and former content director at KCET, described it as “that great institutional death cry of ‘We’re a production center.’”
As head of programming at KCET in the 1970s, Allen played a key role in green-lighting production of Cosmos, the biggest PBS series and the only bona fide hit to ever emanate from Southern California, nearly 30 years ago. The track record speaks to the pitfalls ahead for KOCE as a national producer.
“KOCE should remain as it is, an efficient public broadcaster,” he said, and leave production to WNET, WGBH and WETA.
Russell, who was at PBS in 2010 trying to defuse the conflict with KCET, is well aware of the risks Allen speaks of. He’s not rushing in.
“We have ideas on the board and are working on them,” he said, declining to elaborate.
“You have to walk before you can run.”
Local stories, national appeal
PBS SoCal’s recent productions reflect Russell’s approach of ramping up gradually. Several have gained national carriage over the past six years, and last year two won Los Angeles Area Emmys. Variety Studio: Actors on Actors, a thoroughly Hollywood creation in which movie stars interview each other, debuts its fifth season of episodes this month. PBS stations covering 86 percent of the country aired seasons three and four, according to the station.
China’s Challenges, the other Emmy winner, is PBS SoCal’s most viewed series ever, with 4,050 telecasts nationally on stations covering 77 percent of the country. It is co-produced with the Kuhn Foundation, in association with China’s Shanghai Media Group. They plan more episodes but haven’t announced a timetable.
Another potential national series shows promise. A pilot episode of Buried History, a travelogue featuring Mark L. Walberg (host of Antiques Roadshow) aired in October 2015 on stations reaching 94 percent of television households. PBS SoCal and co-producers at Dick Clark Company, Ace’s Choice Entertainment and Perch 13 Media are seeking funding for a full season for the show, which features Walberg traveling to small towns in a vintage hearse piecing together clues about each town’s genealogy.
Since 2015, KOCE distributed three documentaries through the National Educational Telecommunications Association, including a film about William G. Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and a documentary on the political rise of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
It has also completed historical documentaries that tell unique stories about greater Los Angeles. Henry T. Segerstrom: Imagining the Future, which aired last year, is the story of the Orange County farmer, developer, arts patron and philanthropist who transformed a lima bean field into the nation’s top-grossing retail center, South Coast Plaza, and a dairy farm into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
PBS SoCal’s regular local series include weeklies Studio SoCal, covering news and public affairs across Southern California, LAaRT and Bonnie Boswell Reports.
Meanwhile, PBS SoCal has become adept at creating local events and programs by piggybacking on PBS shows that have California roots, laying its educational and community initiatives on a national program with strong local resonance.
For example, when Ken Burns’s Jackie Robinson premiered on PBS last April, PBS SoCal hosted a screening and panel discussion for its members at the baseball legend’s high school in Pasadena. Panelists included the Dodgers team historian, the director of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and a Los Angeles Times sportswriter.
Polishing the brand
The station’s new marketing campaign is an acknowledgment that its brand is the connective tissue between all its operations, said marketing chief Vides.
“What does Southern California mean? Hollywood. Silicon Beach. Aerospace,” she said, recalling conclusions drawn from focus group research that shaped the campaign. “It’s about innovation, challenges, jumping in.” Focus group participants responded negatively to creative material featuring iconic images and obvious destinations, she said, preferring an insider’s view of locations that tourists wouldn’t recognize — like the back of the Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory or a graffiti wall mural.
The research revealed that the 2011 decision to rebrand as PBS SoCal had only confused viewers and complicated channel listings by video service providers. At the time station execs had worried that its “OC” call letters, which stand for “Orange County,” might alienate the new viewers in the station’s expanded footprint. “But it turns out they didn’t care. They didn’t even know that’s what the ‘OC’ was,” Vides said. Now the marketing and promotion team uses both names, sometimes in combination.
PBS SoCal has been placing ads in the Los Angeles Times and local publications, and running spots on its own air during pledge drives.
The education division, which COO Myers said barely existed when she joined the organization, has grown dramatically and helped build the station’s profile in its expanded market. Last year Myers’s team hosted 126 community events with over 100 partners.
As one of the sponsor stations of Re:Dream, a national project that explores changing opportunities in the 21st century, PBS SoCal hosted Re:Dream in Motion, a field trip and evening of live performances for nonprofit community leaders. Participants boarded the “DoGood” bus, spoke with legendary urban gardener Ron Finley and toured artworxLA, a continuation high school that uses art as a tool for student engagement.
Building PBS SoCal’s educational outreach program “was a big part of the transition in filling the gap” left by KCET, which had a strong profile in preschool education, Myers said. For its Ready To Learn program, the station developed partnerships in low-income communities like the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles. With the Compton Unified School District’s Foster Elementary School, PBS SoCal produced 10 parent workshops, two teacher training events and four outreach events in fiscal 2016. It held a five-day Odd Squad camp there last summer. The station also has provided a total of 120 iPads to an elementary school and other community organizations in Los Angeles and Orange County through Ready To Learn.
But the response to PBS SoCal’s broadcast service for children has been disappointing. Ratings have increased very slightly over the six years as KCET lost viewership. But combined daytime ratings for the two stations has never approached those earned by KCET before it left PBS.
“KOCE got primetime back, but the kids’ numbers never recovered, and the net was a loss for the market,” said Craig Reed, executive director of TRAC Media Services.
PBS SoCal’s UHF channel position has probably made it harder to attract more daytime viewers, Reid said. But he largely attributed the slide to an overall decline in the kids’ live-viewing television market across the media landscape.
Russell never expected PBS SoCal’s ascent to be an easy ride. He and his team appear to relish the opportunity to rebuild an organization from the ground up, and his colleagues describe him as extremely patient and willing to seek help and advice from across the PBS system he knows intimately.
Russell said he’s thrilled with his career shift from corporate to ground operations in public TV. At PBS “I worked a lot with stations,” he said, but “I really love the connection that PBS has with the community.”
“This is a startup company in some sense, a growth company. So we can do it in a new way,” he said. “I love California, and it’s a professional challenge to help build something up in this market.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly described SoCal Connected as a production of PBS SoCal. That series is a weekly production of KCET in Los Angeles. Studio SoCal is KOCE’s local show. In addition, this story has been revised to correct references to Silicon Beach, the University of California at Davis and Dick Clark Company, which is a co-producer of Buried History.