Monday, December 27, 2010

As KCET flutters to freedom in LA, problems with the media coverage

By Barry Johnson

In the universe of Public Television, something momentous is about to happen. KCET, the PBS affiliate in the Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest market, is about to go rogue. On Jan. 1, it will stop broadcasting the PBS staples -- from Nature and Nova to the NewsHour and Antiques Roadshow, not to mention Sesame Street -- and enter the wild world of independent television.  As we've written, lots of PBS affiliates are curious about how this will work out, given the uncertain future of TV networks in general.

Yesterday, the LA Times weighed in with a lengthy story about KCET, an article that managed to curb the sneer of previous stories about the station, but one that still focused on the shortcomings of KCET in the past rather than on the difficulties of the PBS network as a whole and its ability to project itself convincingly into the future. Even worse, from my point of view, it barely even mentioned KCET's plans for the future. Instead of shipping $7 million a year off to PBS-central to secure a bit more of Washington back-and-forth on the NewsHour, what creative ideas does it have moving forward? And  how likely are these to pan out?

The primary criticisms corralled yet again for the LA Times story are simply stated: 1) though it's in the nation's second-largest market, KCET has a smaller budget and smaller endowment than the Big Three on the East Coast (WNET, WGBH and WETA); and 2) KCET has never produced original programming at the level of the Big Three, despite the obvious advantage of proximity to the nation's TV and movie studios and the talent they attract.

KCET argues that these are related issues, and that the PBS system is gamed against them in a sort of Catch-22. The Big Three supply many of the network's prime time shows (for which they receive big credits on their bills to PBS),  and that allows them to spend more to develop new shows.  And KCET's critics say that the station should have worked harder to make connections to the treasure chests of Hollywood.

The most damning comment in the story for anyone who believes that connection to community is absolutely critical to the success of media organizations such as KCET came from writer Lou Cannon: "Viewers are not consulted, much less valued, at KCET. At WGBH in Boston, they're forever asking their viewers what types of programs they want to see more of, and they have a vibrant connection with the Boston community. But I've given to KCET for 20 years, and they've never asked me which programs I do or don't want to watch. If they had more viewer loyalty, then whenever they got into a pickle, they could ask for more money and they'd get it."

The LA Times didn't challenge KCET with this observation or test it any way, really, though that is a fruitful line of investigation, especially if KCET plans to connect more profoundly with its city, as it has suggested.

The New York Times contributed a shorter report on Monday, which focused mostly on the scramble going on among the other three public TV stations in the LA-area to schedule the PBS shows that KCET is giving up. Apparently, the new, Orange County-based flagship station will not schedule the more "daring" PBS show,  Independent Lens, which appeals to a younger and more diverse audience than Charlie Rose and Nightly Business Report (neither of those will be on the new flagship, either, at this point).

The Times did tell us that KCET has lost a few, non-major supporters and picked up $3 million in new support, since the move was announced, and we learned that the new schedule will include movies, old PBS re-runs and foreign imports from the BBC and Japan. And longer term, it wants more local programming. Al Jerome, KCET's president and chief executive said that "now the game begins." "People will see this as a clear alternative and a contrarian way to go, vis-a-vis PBS stations."

That remains to be seen, of course. At this point, though, watching it all from afar, I'm not sure I can count on the LA Times to give me a report that tests this proposition. The LA Times and KCET are competitors, in the broadest sense, meaning that they compete for attention in a large, local market. I would argue that they should be more cooperative than they are, because they are the sources for much of the "serious" news in the city, but that sense of competition added to their cultural and historical differences make it hard to collaborate -- if not impossible.

One thing I have never understood, when I think about PBS programming: Why hasn't the network ever developed a great pop-culture analysis program -- a PopCultureHour that would analyze phenomenon as they arise, flourish and decay.  The world of Mad Men, the role of Elmore Leonard in Justified, the lesson of the success of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, whatever is current and interesting and tells us something about ourselves, where we've been and where we're going. KCET is in a perfect spot for that sort of show -- the major players are at hand for interviews, the area's universities are awash in pop culture historians, LA is the home of lots of interesting critics. And the film clips are free! We love smart talk about the sleazy underbelly, now, don't we?

The video is from Great Performances: Celebracion! Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil with Juan Diego Florez.


jerryketel said...

Nice post, Barry. I agree that KCET has had plenty of opportunity to create successful programming in the past. I don't see how this change will make much of a difference other than to light a fire under the bumm. I do wish them luck.

Barry Johnson said...

I'm interested in how systems such as PBS (at the network level) and KCET get themselves into places that seem very static, and then, how they go about freeing themselves. In this case, maybe a little fire under the seat of the pants was what it took!

Thanks for the comment!