L.A. pubcaster to go indie effective Jan. 1

L.A. pubcaster KCET has made good on its threat to dump its longtime affiliation with PBS.

KCET announced Friday that it would become an independent public broadcaster effective Jan. 1. That means PBS staples like “News Hour,” “Sesame Street” and “Charlie Rose” will no longer be seen on the station.

Unless a last-minute deal can still be worked out, the announcement also means that Orange County’s KOCE-TV will likely pick up the slack as Southern California’s new primary PBS station. The Inland Empire’s KVCR-TV and the L.A. Unified School District’s KLCS-TV also carry some PBS programming.

KCET’s decision also comes after it met with KOCE, KVCR and KLCS about forming a local programming consortium; it appears that nothing has come of that meeting as of yet.

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

“After four decades as the west coast flagship PBS station, this is not a decision we made lightly,” said KCET prexy/CEO Al Jerome. “We have been in discussions with PBS for over three years about the need to address challenges that are unique to our market as well as our station.”

Jerome said KCET will acquire programming from other sources and increase its own original fare by pacting with local arts organizations.

But the decision could cause harm both to KCET and PBS in the short run. Without PBS’ familiar fare, KCET is facing infinitely less support from its viewers (from whom it depends on donations for a portion of its budget).

And PBS will end up having to attract auds in the No. 2 TV market on three smaller, lesser-viewed PBS outlets. (KVCR is not even available on all Southern California cable providers).

“At issue were KCET’s repeated requests that it be allowed to operate as a PBS member station without abiding by PBS policies and paying the corresponding dues,” PBS said in a statement. “PBS’ goal is to have a financially stable service in the Los Angeles market. PBS fully supports the idea of a Southern California consortium of stations and continues discussion with KOCE, KVCR, and KLCS.”

As the battle heats up between KCET and PBS, some believe that the decision could still be reversed 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 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.”

It also might not come cheap. KCET has cut back on original local fare in recent years due to its budget crunch. KCET’s daily “Life and Times” newsmag was scrapped some time ago, and replaced by the weekly “SoCal Connected.”

KCET also attempted a few years ago to develop a slew of local programming under the direction of programmer legend Fred Silverman. That idea was shelved, however, when funds couldn’t be generated to pay for the shows.

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

How the channel might fill the rest of its sked is still unclear; BBC World News can fill the “PBS News Hour” void, while other acquired fare, such as old British comedies or library programming that once ran on PBS could be offered.

Jerome said he also plans 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. We will partner with other public service organizations so that our viewers can learn about the good work being done, but not often reported in the commercial media,” he said. “We will use our broadcast spectrum and broadband capabilities to expand public service at a time in our history when people of all ages want to actively participate in the recovery and growth of our region.”

Jerome and KCET said they were hit with hefty PBS subscription fees because of an overly successful fundraising effort by A Place of Our Own/Los Niños en Su Casa.

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

Most independent public broadcasters run either straight-ahead educational fare, religious programming or foreign language/international programming. KCET would become by far the nation’s largest non-PBS public broadcaster.

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