By JONATHAN POLAKOFF Staff Reporter
When Bob Bergen, the actor who voices Porky the Pig, stutteringly says “That’s all, folks,” he’s closing out an episode of Looney Tunes. But he took the shtick to the air this summer to do something altogether different.
He asked viewers to donate money to KLCS-TV (58), a small PBS affiliate in downtown Los Angeles that is the poorer cousin to the area’s larger public TV stations.
Pledge drives are staples of public television, but they are new to KLCS, a station that bills itself as “The Education Station” and has carved out a niche over the past 40 years as the Los Angeles Unified School District’s primary media outlet.
But the station’s financing is in danger of collapse as the cash-strapped district, KLCS’ main source of funding, recently cut its subsidy in half to $1.4 million. At the same time, the $900,000 it receives from the federally funded Corp. for Public Broadcasting is tenuous as well, given how the non-profit corporation has been targeted for cuts amid the government’s own steep deficit.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Ken Ikeda, co-managing director at Public Media Co., a San Francisco non-profit public media consultancy and brokerage. “What’s happening with KLCS is reflective of the economy, but also a need to change the economic model of (public) television. Many of these stations have been subsidized generously, but not necessary with a full commitment to operate them as sustainable entities.”
KLCS isn’t the first local public TV station to suffer from financial woes. KCET-TV (28), long the standard-bearer for public television in Los Angeles, decided to stop airing PBS programming in 2010 when it was handed a 40 percent fee hike from the Public Broadcasting Service. The station decided to produce and acquire all of its content rather than pay the $7 million in fees to the Arlington, Va.-based network.
Now, KLCS – which airs district board meetings and PBS standards such as “Sesame Street,” and has produced “Homework Hotline,” which allowed students to call in with homework questions – finds itself in a similar position and must rapidly change the way it does business.
Both the station’s staff of 25 people and its annual budget of just $3 million are half the size they were several years ago. Even “Homework Hotline,” which has received local Emmy Awards, was taken off the air recently due to a lack of money to pay tutors.
Though KLCS does not want to withdraw from the PBS network like KCET, it wants to do more of its own local productions. It’s also trying everything from renting out time at its studios to taking on commercial production jobs. The goal is to generate enough revenue to operate without any funding from the LAUSD within three years.
“We need to raise as much as we can,” said Sabrina Thomas, the station’s general manager. “We have to figure it out.”
The station plays a special role in Southern California media. The LAUSD is the second largest school district in the country and the station’s signal reaches from north San Diego County to parts of Santa Barbara County. About 1.66 million households tuned in each week in May, the most recent month for such ratings, according to the station.
The programming is unique even in an era of unfettered options online. For example, LAUSD board meetings aren’t widely available elsewhere, and it produces original talk shows such as “Families Matter,” in which school officials discuss topics from new technology in classrooms to college matriculation standards.
But with its existence in question, management is hoping that it will be able to broaden its audience by producing and acquiring more documentary films with an appeal beyond district stakeholders. One locally planned production is about the role students at East L.A.’s Garfield High School played in the Chicano movement of the 1960s, when students staged a walkout of the school to draw attention to education reform.
“We want to bring the public in,” said Tom Waldman, director of communications and media relations at the LAUSD, which still oversees the station’s operations. “This provides us with an opportunity to turn it into a self-sustaining station providing programming that will be watched and supported by the community.”
Smaller but still significant initiatives include renting out its studio space, which is next to the new Downtown Magnets High School on Bunker Hill, for a base rate of $5,000 a day. It’s even considering producing vocational training videos for local companies and running a film festival in Los Angeles. Another option is leasing its four digital channels, which currently run supplemental programming for primary and secondary education students as well as professional development programs.
But donations from viewers along with corporate underwriting will likely be the most important source of new funding.
The first on-air pledge announcements began airing on KLCS in April and have featured Hollywood actors such as Bergen, as well as former Los Angeles Laker A.C. Green. The spots ask viewers to donate $10 by texting a phone number. As of this month, preliminary fundraising efforts at the station had raised about $53,000.
The full pledge drive will begin in earnest in November and is being overseen by a new director of development, Steven Wishnoff, who was contracted recently and has helped to score some of the celebrity spots. The station hopes to have at least $1.7 million of its budget coming from self-generated revenue by 2014, with the pledge drive accounting for an undetermined share.
Lawrence Wenner, a professor of communication and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, said it remains to be seen how widely the station can convert viewers to donors.
“The decidedly ‘unsexy’ educational programming will most likely resonate for parents who need this programming for remedial help for their children,” he said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, those that have remedial needs often don’t have discretionary dollars.”
In its fundraising, KLCS is touting its role as the only PBS affiliate still located in Los Angeles since KCET dropped out. That dispute showed just how significant the financial conundrum can be for some public TV stations.
The complicated PBS dues structure is based in part on how much fundraising can be brought in by a station. The big dues hike for KCET came on the back of a wildly successful campaign that brought in $50 million in donations and corporate underwriting for its programming. The money was restricted, however, and couldn’t be used for administrative costs, such as paying PBS dues.
The dispute left Costa Mesa station KOCE-TV (50) in Orange County as the leading provider of PBS programming in Los Angeles, including such shows as “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs.” That programming is so popular that it has led a resurgence of public television among viewers, despite the system’s precarious financial situation.
KLCS only offers a fraction of that programming, focusing on such kids programs as “Thomas and Friends,” which is aimed at preschoolers. As a result it only pays $500,000 annually to PBS, though that figure will continue to rise, Thomas said.
Even though KLCS is somewhat of a rival, KOCE General Manager Mel Rogers said that it is paramount the L.A. station stays on the air, since the health of the PBS system relies on member stations being able to continue operations.
“We all pay PBS dues,” Rogers said. “If a bunch of the stations went away – even if they weren’t the biggest stations – it would impact the business model. Money wouldn’t be flowing to programming and acquisitions.”