Friday, October 22, 2010

The PBS empire loses a major colony in LA

By Barry Johnson

UPDATE: PBS has announced plans to integrate local and national content -- especially video -- on its website and phone apps. Which makes the KCET case even more puzzling.

Every day it becomes more and more apparent that "television" is devolving into ever more discrete units of digital information, all increasingly available on the Internet. And the Future of Television has become a scramble by traditional networks, channels, cable systems and even programs to protect themselves from the devaluation that seems to be accompanying the rapid changes.

A good opportunity to take a peek at one alternate future will come in January when KCET, the largest public television station in the LA basin, makes its final break with PBS, after refusing to pay the fees that PBS demanded. David Lumb and Patt Morrison for KPCC gave the basics of the split when it became public last week, and the LA Times has a story this morning on the proximate cause of the divorce, if you're just catching up on the story.

Whatever the cause, the defection of the PBS flagship station in the massive LA market is a big deal.  We asked Steve Bass, the president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, about the waves it might create throughout the PBS system. He wrote:
"This could signal a big shift in the public television system if any other stations choose to go that direction. I don't know of any at this point, but I know that others will be watching KCET, and if there is a sign that what they are doing is working, they may decide to go in the same direction or potentially form an alliance with KCET that could siphon money away from PBS. I wouldn't bet on this scenario as it would require KCET finding a model that works, but still, it's possible.
 A "model that works" is the key phrase here: How will KCET replace Sesame Street, Nova, NewsHour and Masterpiece Theater? That's the "future" part. So far, the station has been vague: "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,” KCET Chairman Gordon Bava said in a statement. And the fundraising question lurks nearby, too: Will the new programs that KCET invents find the same support as, say, Antiques Roadshow?

Some observers view KCET's action as a necessary and liberating step for the station. Jessica Clark (a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the research director at American University's Center for Social Media) and law professor Ellen Goodman wrote about the possibilities for the LA Daily News and imagined a blossoming of local programming and coverage of local issues. They also addressed the cost issue:
"Sometimes being local is expensive, which is why local TV content has always been pretty rare. But sometimes, it just requires curating the content that exists in abundance across digital networks (including YouTube and Facebook), in schools and universities, and at community art centers and theaters. Public broadcasters like KCET -- poised to become the nation's largest noncommercial TV station -- can provide a platform for widespread distribution of such content and public engagement with it."
For a more pessimistic view, here's John Proffitt commenting on a post by IT/new media/marketing  expert Doc Searls. He thinks that it's unlikely that KCET will embrace the strategy that Clark and Goodman propose, and instead push for high-end documentaries that attempt to out-PBS, PBS.
"This will be expensive television. It will be created by creatives who have visions. It will not be community-focused or derived. No Flip cams allowed. No everyday people permitted. KCET will burst with creative new works for the next 2 years. Everyone will herald them for their ingenuity and their bravery for leaving the PBS camp. Then it will slowly decline. The excitement will pass. The donations will slow. The cost of running a major transmitter will be too much to bear. KCET will slowly become a video production house for grant-funded film and commercial work where possible. The “station” will disappear in 5 years."
This skepticism also bubbled to the surface in the commentary by LA Times television critic, Robert Lloyd:
"One can easily imagine ... a vicious circle of diminishing returns, in which cheaper programming leads to fewer pledges, which in turn leads to even cheaper programming, which leads to fewer pledges. Rather than being asked to pay for more of what they know they want, viewers are, for the moment, being asked to buy a pig in a poke, to put faith in a plan proposed by people in whom they have no convincing reason to put their faith."
But just to balance the books, here's what a caller to KPCC said about the move: “'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 ethics 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.'”

Would KCET have parachuted away from PBS if it were a perfectly good airplane? I doubt it. Steve Bass called it a "bet the farm strategy," and we think of network television, including public television, as being risk averse, generally. Bass pointed out that KCET shares the LA basin with four other affiliates and so doesn't have exclusive rights to PBS content, so that may have been a sticking point. But we suspect that if PBS had a compelling strategy for managing the turmoil in television generally, then KCET would have done what it needed to do to raise the $6.8 million to pay its dues.

This isn't the place for an analysis of PBS (though if you know of a good one, please link to it in the comments), and Arts Dispatch couldn't do one right now if it were: We haven't done our research. But from what we've observed (and heard from those who follow these matters closely), the situation of PBS is analogous in many ways to the newspaper business (which we know pretty well): The demographics situation looks pretty dire (viewers are increasingly older, the audience is mostly white); to program for new audiences you risk of losing the "core" audience; technological changes continue to disrupt the working model and the competition is vicious, and no one has much experience managing in this sort of environment, which tends to produce paralysis or tinkering around the edges of problems.

PBS has invested a lot of resources in children's programming and online, though how those investments will work out in the long run (financially and strategically, anyway) isn't clear.  It has been slow to respond to problems (KCET isn't the only one) and imbalances (between the few producing stations and the majority of consuming stations, for example) in its network.  Reading between the lines of Bass's comment, the stations in the network are restive and looking for other alternatives. KCET, for reasons of its own, some of which may be particular (it's in an area with lots of potential program producers, like Vicky above, for example, and has had success raising money for its own programming), has decided to strike out on its own.

One last point before we close? LA Times critic Lloyd observed that KCET had failed to discuss its escape from PBS with its community. I'm not sure how he knows this (CEO Al Jerome didn't talk with ANY supporters or major donors before making the move?), but for the sake of argument let's say Lloyd is correct. Certainly, the members weren't polled on the matter. And that's not a good sign: If KCET wants to become more local, more responsive to its cultural ground, then a good place to begin would have been at the beginning.

Clark and Goodman point out that in the beginning of the public television movement it was assumed that the stations would emphasize local matters. That didn't happen. No national network can address the specifics of any given city or state, its special blend of advantages and shortcomings, its people and their efforts to resolve their specific problems. KCET has seized the opportunity to do reattach itself to the vast, diverse LA basin. Clark and Goodman suggest that community involvement in its programming is crucial to its success, to figuring out ways to be more useful to the region than the old, PBS-dominated KCET was.

PBS programs are not perfect. A study of the the flagship PBS news program, NewsHour, found that guests invited to debate policy points on the show were overwhelming white and male, and they leaned more heavily toward Republicans than Democrats or third party representatives.  The NewsHour recipe, with its panels of competing ideological sound bite experts snarling over national issues, has  limited usefulness in giving us the information we need to make decisions, certainly local decisions. So Clark and Goodman are correct in thinking that something better and more pertinent is possible, and that the only way to discover that "something better" is to connect the community as closely as possible.



BJCefola said...

KCET has their work cut out for them. I saw a lot of quotes in those stories from people whose loyalty to PBS superseded their loyalty to the local station.

Barry Johnson said...

I agree: Weaning people away from specific shows and the overall PBS "feel," that bubble of security, is going to be difficult. On the other hand, maybe they're betting that a larger audience that doesn't watch PBS awaits them if they can crack the code. But you're absolutely right: the quotes were daunting, although the sample size was miniscule (a common problem in newspaper accounts).

Cory Huff said...

If there's any market where this can succeed, I think it's LA. There isn't any place in the world with a larger collection of media talent (maybe NYC?).

You should be able to pull in quite a bit of low-cost, high-quality content. The real obstacle, as I see it, is making the connections to the audience and reconnecting with the majority of people who don't watch 'public television' but who might be interested in watching something about their own neighborhood.

Personally, I would LOVE to see something like this happen in PDX. I'd be all over it.

BJCefola said...

Suppose KCET did get all their content from local production. Would they lose something by restricting their voices to only the local? I’m thinking of big social issues like race, economy and environment. Those can certainly be approached through a local lens, but can you do them justice by using ONLY a local lens? I’d compare it to a theater that would only stage productions written by locals. That theater might be an interesting place, but could it/should it be the “flagship” of theaters?

Barry Johnson said...

BJ, That's a good point, and in a less media saturated universe,I would agree with you. But the balance between local and "national" leans heavily toward the national, and that content is available elsewhere in LA (and really, anywhere, thanks to the Internet). And the best local reporting (admittedly in short supply!) attempts to link local conditions to events/trends/news elsewhere. LA is squarely in the middle of the issues you raise, and personally, I'd love to see in-depth reporting on them from there.

I like the comparison to local theater. What if Portland Center Stage decided to produce only plays by local playwrights? I think we'd still get to see plays from outside Portland at other theaters, and PCS would be the theater at most risk. On the other hand, for a time at least we'd get to see local plays under optimal production conditions.

Barry Johnson said...

Cory, I think you're absolutely right: if KCET has enough money to harness the "video resources" of the LA basin, something quite distinctive and amazing might happen. On a much smaller scale I feel the same way about the Northwest.

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