Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bye, bye NOVA?

"KCET without PBS? Audience says no"

KCET's switchboards were recently abuzz after operators floated the idea of possibly severing PBS ties. But large dues and budget woes leave the station with little room to maneuver.


James Rainey

August 7th, 2010


The honchos over at KCET weren't quite prepared for the sound and fury vented by their audience this week when they let it slip that the station might drop out of the Public Broadcasting Service.

So until they got their talking points straight, the public television operators shut down the switchboard for a couple of hours Wednesday. When the lines reopened later that day, KCET operators got an earful about the potential loss of "Nova" and "The News Hour" and questions about what replacement programming might be on the way and why those dreary pledge drives must drag on so long.

The lesson: Don't threaten to roust Big Bird from his roost until a new nest has been made. Instead, KCET has flown into a squall of criticism about its operations and future direction. It's not apparent how it will make a safe landing.

I don't blame the bosses at the station for trying to get out from under some of the $6.8 million in annual dues they owe PBS, which got inflated because of a burst of one-time fundraising by the L.A. station a few years back.

That's not to say that management couldn't have planned better for this fee bubble or that it can easily dismiss a lot of other complaints — about the paltry amount of local programming, the potential drag of executive pay (with most of the dozen employees ranked vice president or higher making around $200,000 a year and up) and about broad, and growing, pledge-drive fatigue.

Recognizing the danger of asking people for more money at the same time you are telling them their favorite programs may be pulled off the air, KCET canceled its on-air solicitations on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Station Chief Executive Al Jerome said management wasn't afraid of public reaction. It simply needed a couple of days, he said, to make sure workers at the Utah center that handles viewer calls were prepared for questions. Pledge programs will resume Saturday night.

In truth, these on-air solicitations have been a conundrum throughout the public television universe for years. Stations shift to alternative programming — cue "Roy Orbison & Friends" or "Ed Sullivan: Rock & Roll Classics" — to pry money from the heavily baby boomer audience.

As PBS viewers have fled to other stations (the same kind of fragmentation felt throughout the media), the dollars captured per hour have dropped. To keep their budgets up, managers extend pledge programming hours. Viewers get tired of infomercial-style pitches, driving even more away. And the cycle continues — managers taking even more hours away from regular programming to raise money.

In the fiscal year just ended in June, KCET spent 528 hours pitching for dollars, up 9% from the year prior but still far short of KOCE in Orange County, which has about twice that many hours of pledge programming, said Jerome.

After The Times broke the news Wednesday that KCET had threatened (albeit only as a last resort) to drop PBS and find alternative programs, Beryl Arbit of Encino e-mailed me. "I'd miss 'Great Performances,'" Arbit said, "but I sure as heck would NOT miss the interminable pledge drives. I have to think some actuary has concluded that the payoff in pledges exceeds the piss-off factor of viewers, but I'm not convinced."

In other e-mails, onetime KCET loyalists said they had grown tired of constant solicitations by phone and mail. They said that it took a lot of complaining to put a stop to the deluge of calls and letters.

One KCET insider, who didn't want to be named, said public television stations have been talking for at least a decade about how to get out of the pledge box. But they haven't found many good answers.

"We can't keep going back to the same well," said the employee. "But no one can figure out an alternative. And it still does bring in the bucks."

KCET boss Jerome wants to combine with public television stations in Orange County, the Inland Empire and the Los Angeles school district to form a consortium that would divvy up programs, fundraising and production.

A study by the consultant Booz & Co. estimates that the collaboration with KOCE, KVCR and KLCS would produce savings and new earnings totaling $13 million a year. The parent Corporation for Public Broadcasting has expressed support for such an alliance.

But the question of relieving KCET of its dues — based on a formula that counts local fundraising for both regular operations and special productions — won't be so easy to resolve. PBS leaders worry that if they reduce the $6.8 million the Los Angeles station pays a year it would set off a rush of demands from other stations for fee relief. Loss of dues could threaten the very programs that made PBS a premium brand in the first place.

Jerome reiterated in an interview Friday that KCET simply can't continue with the current dues structure, though he said he is "very optimistic" that a compromise can be reached that would keep the station with PBS.

Some public television insiders initially thought KCET might be bluffing about leaving PBS as leverage to lower its dues. But they told me they now take the threat seriously — in part because of rumors that the station has been looking at alternative programs.

Internet chat rooms have bristled with possible alternatives, including that Orange County-based KOCE would simply take over as the dominant public television station in Southern California. But KOCE Chief Executive Mel Rogers said that, contrary to rumor, he doesn't want to push his big competitor to the north aside.

"I think it's better for us and better for the market if KCET and PBS can work something out," Rogers said, "and I still think they will work something out."

In the meantime, KCET has touched off a summer storm. Luckily, the switchboard has reopened. It can expect to be getting a lot more than pledge calls.

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