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KCET flies without a PBS net

Station looks to collaborate with radio, BBC, L.A. Times

L.A. pubcaster KCET is crafting an extreme programming makeover.

The station’s decision to drop its longtime PBS affiliation at year’s end will prompt a radical restructuring of its offerings but is also likely to inflict harm on its own prospects as well as on PBS in the short run.

KCET, which acted after a protracted disagreement over the amount of dues PBS collects, could lose significant support from its viewers, while PBS will have to attract auds in the No. 2 TV market from three smaller, lesser viewed PBS outlets. Orange County’s KOCE is likely to pick up the slack as Southern California’s new primary PBS station, unless a last-minute deal can be worked out. (The Inland Empire’s KVCR, which is not available on all Southern California cable providers, and the L.A. Unified School District’s KLCS also carry some PBS programming.)

Beginning next year, staples such as “News Hour,” “Sesame Street” and “Charlie Rose” will be gone. KCET plans to fill some of that void with more fare from American Public Television, which syndicates programs such as “Rick Steves’ Europe,” “Globe Trekker” and music specials like “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” to pubcasters.

“We will become a much bigger customer of theirs,” said KCET prexy-CEO Al Jerome, who announced the decision on Friday. Conveniently, APT is holding its next programming marketplace next month in La Quinta, Calif.

KCET will also continue its relationship with Huell Howser, whose folksy California-based travelogues already make up a chunk of the station’s sked.

And, per Jerome, KCET is in discussions with L.A. public radio stations KCRW and KPCC about collaborating on TV projects. That could mean televising KCRW music concerts or KPCC interview shows on KCET.

“Combining talents with public radio makes a lot of sense,” said Jerome.

KCET is likely to start airing more BBC World News fare; it already has a deal in place with the BBC to distribute news programming to public TV stations across the country.

Jerome also hinted at working on fare with the L.A. Times, expanding its weekly “SoCal Connected” newsmag and perhaps even bringing back elements from the station’s old “Life and Times” nightly program. And KCET said it would also look to acquire more international programming from the U.K., Canada, Japan and elsewhere.

KCET is already moving toward more non-PBS fare, having added a package of old movies to its Sunday night sked.

Nonetheless, KCET remains mum on programming details post-Jan. 1. Jerome was vague on specifics but said he intends to reach out to L.A.’s arts community to partner on some original fare. “Our plan is to become the media partner for the many diverse, creative voices in our community with stories to tell, art to exhibit, music or dance to perform and news to report.”

If the reaction on KCET’s website is any indication, auds will not be happy with the programming switch — and that could result in a hefty blow to the station’s fund-raising efforts.

“Being a loyal viewer for many years, this comes as a shock and shows a complete disregard for your audience,” one viewer wrote on KCET’s site. “In no way will I be renewing my membership with you again, and I will encourage others to do the same. All you’ve done is left one of the largest TV markets in the country without what is arguably the best source for quality news and science reporting.”

Jerome admitted the change won’t sit well with many KCET supporters. “In the beginning a lot of people who watch us will be disrupted,” he said. “We’re cognizant of the fact that our viewership is comfortable with programs from certain genres. They want to see nature and science and documentary and children’s programming, and national and international news. In our acquisitions strategy we’re looking for programs we know will be comfortable to our bread and butter audience.”

KCET’s decision comes after it met with KOCE, KVCR and KLCS about forming a local programming consortium; nothing has come of that yet, but the four stations will meet again next month at KVCR’s offices.

A consortium may be tougher to pull off with KCET’s involvement now that the station has gone indie.

KCET hinted earlier this year that it might drop PBS after the service refused to renegotiate KCET’s hefty $7 million annual programming fee.

Jerome said, “This is not a decision we made lightly.” The exec noted that the station’s PBS dues had skyrocketed from $4 million in 2005, while the station’s operating revenue fell by 27%. That $7 million fee makes up 25% of its operating budget.

“Those dues are the highest they’ve ever been,” Jerome said. “We could not sustain that level of dues. And we ran out of time.”

Jerome and KCET said they were hit with hefty PBS subscription fees due to an overly successful fund-raising effort by A Place of Our Own/Los Ninos en Su Casa.

“The dues were then frozen at the highest rate in the station’s history just as the economy tumbled, leading to decreases in contributions from viewers, corporate underwriting and foundation grants,” KCET said.

KCET repeatedly asked to be downgraded to a “secondary” PBS affiliate — but PBS denied the request.

As the battle heats up between KCET and PBS, some believe a compromise could still be reached before Dec. 31. But for now, both sides have dug their heels in.

“Our board of directors decided unanimously that KCET could best serve Southern California by allocating our supporters’ funds to locally focused news and cultural programming and other national and international quality content,” said KCET board chairman Gordon Bava. “While separating from the PBS mothership 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.”

It also may not come cheap. KCET has cut back on original local fare in recent years due to its budget crunch.

Station attempted a few years ago to develop a slew of local programming under the direction of programming legend Fred Silverman. But the idea was shelved when funds couldn’t be generated to pay for the shows.

KCET isn’t the first pubcaster to dump PBS over high fees. KCSM San Mateo, Calif., dropped the service last year and now operates as an independent public TV station. But KCSM wasn’t the primary PBS affil in the Bay Area, and the switchover wasn’t nearly as disruptive as KCET’s will be.

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