A little synergy could save PBS outlets

HOLLYWOOD — Anyone watching Fox’s new primetime sudser “The OC” would think Orange County is chock-a-block with fabulous beach houses, big cars and beautiful young people.

But it’s also the only county in the country that is on the verge of having to sell off its cash-strapped public broadcasting station to the highest bidder.

It may not be the last.

There are some 350 public service broadcast licenses scattered around the country, and it’s arguable that joint operations in larger markets where there are signal and audience overlap might be a wise course for some of these perennially penny-pinched outlets.

Just as commercial nets have found they can better justify budgets for top-of-the-line shows by having the chance to cross-promote and repurpose them across platforms, a joint partnership between, in this case, Orange County’s KOCE and L.A. pubcaster KCET might allow for a single, stronger player than either is alone.

It’s also a sign of the times that four of the highest bidders for KOCE are religious broadcasters.

Despite calls from concerned citizens and last-ditch efforts on the part of KCET and the KOCE Foundation, it’s quite possible that the station will go to one such televangelical group, either Daystar or Trinity, which are each willing to stump up $25 million. Apparently they have more money than God, so to speak.

That would clearly mark the end of localism at KOCE, says station prexy Mel Rogers, who points out that the station is “the only locally based electronic media” in the county of 3.2 million and that O.C. is “fiercely not L.A.”

While the funding of public broadcasting has always been a tricky, sometimes arcane and increasingly enervating exercise, with both corporate grants and subscriptions getting harder to procure, KOCE’s problems have been exacerbated by its costly $8 million transition to digital.

Unfortunately, its travails come on the heels of a crisis in state government so severe that essential local services are being cut.

To wit, the Coast Community College District, which has held the KOCE station license for 30 years and runs it mainly as an educational tool for its students, is cash-strapped. It has been subsidizing the station for as much as $2 million of its $8 million annual budget. (KCET’s annual budget is five times larger and it’s in the black.)

Last week Coast Community put out a statement saying, “It’s regrettable to lose a resource like KOCE, but our primary commitment isn’t to Washington lobbyists and corporate donors. Nor is our commitment to the targeted audience of KOCE, including the 59% of viewers who live in L.A. County. Let them pay for the station, not the thousands of adults who need vocational training and/or a college education.”

Still, it’s amazing to think the KOCE Foundation, which originally lobbed (jointly with KCET) a bid of $10 million for the station, can’t stump up the necessary moolah to keep the station out of the hands of religious fundamentalists.

After all, the county is one of the wealthiest in the U.S., and a healthy proportion of its population fits the PBS audience profile of “upscale, affluent and educated opinion leaders and decision makers.”

Rogers says the Foundation is working furiously “to bring forward a more competitive bid.”

A media broker will parse the bids and make a preliminary decision Oct. 15.

If the Foundation, which represents local business and cultural interests, comes up with a viable offer, it would be an opportunity for the two adjacent PBS stations to take a page out of their commercial rivals’ playbook.

KCET’s signal already covers all of Orange County: Were it to be empowered by helping to run the O.C. station, it could help preserve the best of that station’s localism, such as the “Real Orange” public affairs show, and perhaps free up money for more original programming.

It’s not that PBS programming needs necessarily to be “more commercial,” it’s that its operations need to become more competitive.

Last week KCET pulled back from its joint bid with the Foundation for KOCE, citing its inability to adequately analyze its books and its operations in so short a time.

KCET president Al Jerome, who spent many years in the commercial trenches before joining the pubcaster in early 1996, says his station would be glad to talk about “operational synergies” with the Foundation, were it to win the bidding.

“PBS stations have got to learn to work more cooperatively, to merge more backroom functions, to stop undercutting each other’s fund-raising efforts, to share more programming, to think more broadly about branding,” Jerome says.

That’s almost certainly a better scenario than letting a temporarily cash-strapped station become a pulpit for narrowly sectarian views in such a cultural melting pot as Southern California.

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