Arts & Entertainment

KCET drops PBS, risks viewer loyalty to avoid $6.8M yearly dues

KCET, one of the largest public television stations in the nation, officially announced its decision to cease broadcasting PBS programming.

KCET is following through on a contingency strategy by dropping PBS programming to avoid $6.8 million subscription dues that haven't been adjusted since before the economic crash.

Although the public is wary of losing popular PBS programs, KCET President and CEO Al Jerome is confident local programming will take advantage of the opportunity to serve the Los Angeles community.

While the possibility had been considered during the station’s failed negotiations with PBS, the decision comes as a surprise and betrayal to some loyal KCET viewers who voiced their concerns to guest host David Lazarus on today's Patt Morrison show..

“I think it’s a terrible decision,” said Al, a caller from Los Angeles, who went on to say that disconnecting KCET from the PBS network would essentially “relegate LA to being provincial.”

“I can’t think of anything dumber,” said Dan, a caller from Dana Point, regarding KCET’s decision, specifically noting that he turns to the station for PBS programming. “It sounds like ego more than anything else.”

L.A. Times media critic Jim Rainey also explained the circumstances regarding the financial feud between KCET and PBS: several years ago, KCET had received extraordinary funding (including a $40 million grant from BP) and hosted a successful fundraiser for A Place of Our Own/Los Niños en Su Casa.

PBS bases each station’s dues on its income and raised KCET’s dues 40 percent, according to a KCET press release. PBS froze KCET’s dues at that highwater level – right before the economic crash.

According to Rainey, PBS refused to reduce fees for KCET in order to avoid setting a precedent for other stations. If they reduced one station’s fees, “the whole system could be in danger,” Rainey said.

(In full disclosure, Lazarus said, he and Rainey also work on the KCET-produced SoCal Connected program.)

Lazarus pointed out that PBS would not allow KCET to run programs “a la carte,” as PBS allows other stations to do, which are not entitled to buy all programs but must buy at least a quarter of the programming.

The decision to cease subscription of PBS shows will leave large gaps in KCET’s programming schedule when it stops airing PBS favorites like Nova, Frontline and Sesame Street, but KCET President and Chief Executive Officer Al Jerome is optimistic and excited about the opportunity for locally-produced programming to flourish.

“We’ve put together a schedule that we’re putting the finishing touches on,” Jerome said on-air shortly after news of KCET’s decision reached the media.

Jerome recognized that the switch will be very disruptive to viewers, but was confident that the variety of national and international programming would meet the needs of KCET’s constituency.

Jerome’s strategy for the future of KCET’s local programming is to take advantage of the arts and culture community and film community in the LA area.

“We have so many creative resources,” Jerome said. “It would be great to provide the opportunity to show what’s being done in L.A.”

Although KCET would save the $6.8 million PBS fee, Lazarus asked caller Carol from Rancho Santa Margarita whether she would continue to support KCET in the future with donations should they lose their PBS programming.

“No,” Carol said, “I would stick with the channel with PBS.”

Jerome predicts an initial loss of support from a public that's come to expect PBS programming, but hopes that as the vision for the station becomes clearer to the public, they will support KCET for “really doing the job of covering our community better than anyone.”

Jerome’s optimism seems to suggest that KCET had planned to focus on their own content and suspend PBS programming all along, but the shifting strategy is really the execution of a contingency plan that Rainey reported on in August.

At that time KCET was ten months into “intense negotiation” with PBS to lower KCET’s dues. Despite three years of negotiating, KCET and PBS could not reach agreement, leading to KCET’s announcement today.

Amidst the negotiations, and still considered a possibility by Jerome, is a consortium of the four public broadcasting stations in the L.A. area, consisting of KCET, Orange County-based KOCE-TV, San Bernardino-based KCVR-TV, and the LA Unified School District’s KLCS.

The consortium would share broadcasting of PBS programs and cross-promote to ensure viewers were made aware of the schedule of PBS programs across all four stations.

In the meantime, KOCE-TV, KCVR-TV and KLCS will continue to carry and broadcast PBS programming, presumably inheriting KCET’s PBS viewership.

“We assume that by January 1, we will be the primary PBS station on the market,” said Mel Rogers, KOCE-TV’s president and CEO. Although Rogers said KOCE will do everything they can to have as little disruption in viewers’ transition to KOCE, their schedule won’t be “wildly different right off the bat.”

Rogers said KOCE considers sister stations KLCS and KVCR to be partners in absorbing KCET’s audiences and ensure cross-promotion to ensure viewers “find out what’s on when.” Rogers predicts the majority of the burden to fall on KOCE.

However, Rogers doesn’t expect that burden to include the $6.8 million expense KCET could not absorb for PBS programming, citing KOCE’s smaller size and comparatively smaller overhead than the L.A. station.

“There are occasionally interesting programs, but without PBS my family will rarely see KCET and remove it from favorites,” user Tom Sabbe commented on the story’s KPCC web page.

“I don’t own a TV. KCET doesn’t matter [to me] because I watch it on the computer,” caller Susan said. “I go to the LA Times and Pasadena City Star for local news.”

Of the half-dozen calls during the program, one caller voiced her complete support of Jerome’s local opportunity strategy.

“I think it’s a great decision, and I’m gonna take advantage of it!” said caller Vicky, who said she runs a production company that runs ethical stories, one of which beat the New York Times to the punch on a fraud expose.

KCET’s decision, she said, will “bring ethics back in the media and not just sell time. It’s a great opening of the door [for people] to speak out and tell their story.”