KCET famously ditched PBS several years ago in a dispute about fees. The country's biggest independent TV station has been clobbered financially since then, but it's now attempting to stop the bleeding by merging with Link TV, a San Francisco satellite broadcaster whose CEO told the New York Times that his company, with 33 million DirecTV and Dish Network viewers, has "a bit of a cult following."
The Link TV CEO won't lead the new "independent public transmedia company," according to the KCET release. Al Jerome, who broke KCET away from PBS, will assume that role in the new entity, KCETLink, which will be based in Burbank.
This could be the beginning of KCET trying to solve its programming problem. According the LA Times, the station saw a 41-percent drop in contribution and grant funding in 2011. But what's worse, it missed out on "Downton Abbey," the runaway British hit that's now in its third season. PBS and its affiliates got the show in the U.S. It airs on Orange County's KOCE-TV in Southern California.
"Downton Abbey" is a juggernaut — PBS's latter-day version of "Upstairs Downstairs" or "Brideshead Revisited" and a show that has captivated PBS viewers in the same way that HBO's audience took to "The Sopranos" or AMC watchers latched onto "Mad Men" or "The Walking Dead." That Jerome and KCET's decision to break with PBS occurred at almost precisely the moment when "Downton" touched down in the U.S. in retrospect now seems more like bad Karma than mere bad luck.
To counter, KCETLink will be able to broadcast "Borgen," a Danish program that the Daily Beast said gets everything right that Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" gets wrong.
"Borgen" versus "Downton Abbey." Birgitte Nyborg Christensen and Philip Christensen versus Matthew and Lady Mary.
Well, it's a start and at least demonstrates that KCET is aware that the loss of PBS programming has severely affected its ability to remain, as it has for more than four decades, a force in public media. Unfortunately, in public TV, the "Downton Abbeys" don't come along very often.