Smaller Southland public TV stations to carry more PBS content

The decision by Los Angeles public TV station KCET to sever ties with PBS does not mean an end to PBS programming over Southland airwaves, a competing TV station president said Saturday.

But it does mean a $7 million hit to the PBS network's budget.

The president of the Orange County-based public station, KOCE, said his station stands ready to work with two other small publicly-owned stations to take turns relaying all of the national PBS programming that is now carried by KCET.

In a statement to viewers posted on KOCE's web site, Mel Rogers said his Channel 50 will partner with Channel 24 in Riverside and the Los Angeles school district's Channel 58 to ensure that PBS shows now airing on KCET Channel 28 "will continue to be available, without interruption, throughout the L.A. television market.''

"KOCE will assume the PBS common carriage obligations and work with our partner stations to ensure all PBS shows are not only available, but are easy to find for our viewers,'' the head of KOCE said.

That might mean daily PBS programs like "PBS NewsHour'' and "Sesame Street'' would air on Channel 50, and that primetime shows like "Nova'' and "Masterpiece'' would be rotated among three small Southland pubcasters: KOCE, KVCR ands KLCS.

For the small percentage of Southland TV viewers who rely on over-the- air, antenna-based TV signals, that move of PBS programming to the three other stations may not be hitch-free. One of the stations, KVCR, transmits from a mountaintop near Moreno Valley, 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

KVCR's over-the-air signal cannot reach much of Los Angeles or Orange counties, and Channel 24 currently has just a .1 rating in the L.A. market, according to a national trade journal.

But because the vast majority of TV viewers get their signals via cable or satellite TV, they will not have that problem. KVCR's programming is carried on all major cable systems and both satellite companies in the giant Los Angeles TV market, which includes 5.6 million households in L.A. and Orange counties, as well as western Riverside County.

The third public TV partner, KLCS, is owned and operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District, and its general manager told the trade journal Currents that the schools superintendent and LAUSD board are in favor of adding PBS programs to Channel 58. It currently programs educational and teaching shows during the day, with general-interest programming at night.

The three smaller stations are currently part-time members of PBS, and are allowed to cherrypick 25 percent of PBS shows on a delayed basis. KCET had been discussing going to a similar part-time status, by partnering with the three other stations to each pick up two or three nights of the national PBS primetime schedule each week.

But discussions between PBS and KCET broke down, and Friday the L.A. station said it will sever ties with PBS and become an independent public television station beginning Jan. 1.

For its part, PBS chided KCET for "its repeated requests that it be allowed to operate as a PBS member station without abiding by PBS policies and paying the corresponding dues.'' In a statement, PBS said it would work with KOCE, KVCR and KLCS to set up a programming schedule with them for the shows now airing on KCET.

KCET said its woes with PBS started in 2004, when the stations got a one-time, four-year infusion of $50 million to produce a special bilingual series on child care, with an accompanying public education outreach effort.

PBS used that grant to calculate how much financial support from "viewers like you'' were contributing to KCET, and hiked the station's annual dues for PBS programs by 40 percent. KCET president Al Jerome said that was unfair, and asked for the dues to be recalculated.

KCET's decision to leave PBS cuts a $7 million hole in the network's programming budget, and smaller PBS stations are not happy. "This is a member system, and KCET has been in it since the inception,'' said Garry Denny, a programmer at Wisconsin Public Television.

"It is their responsibility to viewers and their community to remain a full PBS member,'' he said in an interview with the national public broadcasting trade magazine, Current. :It's their responsibility to other stations.''

But KCET's Jerome said the PBS decision to raise Channel 28's dues 40 percent would cause the station to "self-immolate,'' according to Current.

The station will continue to air some non-PBS shows that have currently crept in to the station's primetime schedule, such as BBC World News, which it airs and distributes across the U.S. under license from the BBC.

"While separating from the PBS mother ship is daunting, the potential of providing a media platform for the creative, scientific and cultural communities of Southern California to create informative and entertaining noncommercial programming with a fresh perspective is very exciting,'' Jerome said Friday.