Updated 1:50 p.m. KCET, the Burbank-based independent public television station, announced a reorganization that includes cutting 22 full-time positions, about a fifth of the workforce
KCET spokeswoman Ariel Carpenter said the layoffs are effective immediately, and added that five vacant positions will not be filled.
The layoffs come after KCET-TV a 2012 merger with Link Media, an independent nonprofit media company. When the merger was announced, then-KCET head Al Jerome was announced as the Chief Executive Officer of the merged operation, renamed KCETLink.
In a Friday news release, KCETLink said the layoffs are intended to "maximize operational and financial efficiencies following its merger, and align itself with digital innovation in the rapidly changing media landscape."
Bret Marcus, the Executive Producer of KCET's award-winning news show, SoCal Connected, was among the staff laid off. Over the last few years the show has won several high-profile journalism awards, including a George Foster Peabody for its series of investigations into the marijuana clinic boom in Los Angeles and an Alfred I. duPont Columbia Award on L.A.'s overcrowded Dependency Court System.
San Francisco-based Link operates the Link TV national satellite network and an international news website.
KCET said the merger fit perfectly with a three-year plan it laid out after leaving the PBS network in January 2011. When that happened, KCET became the largest independent non-commercial television station in the U.S. and began a new life without popular PBS staples like “Sesame Street” and “PBS NewsHour.”
In merging with Link, KCET said it would continue to air locally produced shows. But its schedule has become increasingly dominated by acquired programs like “Doc Martin” and “Death in Paradise” and international news programming from Al Jazeera English and the BBC. It’s struggling to keep the local programming going.
Los Angeles businessman and civic activist Steve Soboroff calls the loss of "SoCal Connected" disappointing.
“When L.A. loses great things, it’s not good,” Soboroff said. “They’re taking away great programming and taking away jobs.”
Soboroff has supported KCET in the past but is concerned about how the station has managed its money.
KCET’s most recent audited financial statements available – for the fiscal year ending June 2012 – show a net loss of $7.4 million and only $80,000 in cash on hand. In the previous fiscal year, it posted a net gain of $15 million and finished with $1.5 million in cash on hand. The financial statement also noted KCET entered into a $5 million revolving line of credit a year ago that was set to expire at the end of last month.
Two years ago (April 2011), KCET sold its landmark studios to the Church of Scientology for $42 million. A year later, it began broadcasting from new studios with the latest technology called The Pointe in Burbank. Its financial statement indicates that its rent expenses were $2 million in its last fiscal year; in 2015, operating leases will cost KCET more than $3 million a year.
Many critics, like Soboroff, believe KCET has spent too much on office space and too little on its product and people.
“The optics of it need explanation,” Soboroff said. “They sell this asset at a big price, but on the other hand to follow that up with loss of defining programming, which leads to layoffs really requires an explanation and a plan.”
Tom Thomas, who heads the Station Resource Group, a membership organization that advocates for public broadcasters across the country, said KCET faces similar challenges to other public television stations: Finding a new business model as government support has flattened or declined. (Note: KPCC is a member of the Station Resource Group, and KPCC CEO Bill Davis is a member of the SRG Board of Directors.).
“Creating meaningful local content that is valued by the audience is a difficult and costly proposition,” said Thomas. “KCET has been far more ambitious than many over the years in its commitments to original production, which is part of the continuing financial pressure that they face.”