KCET Taps Into Hollywood Again To Get Programs

Staff Reporter

KCET (Channel 28) is finally tapping into the creative community outside its doors after years of lagging behind public television stations on the East Coast in original program offerings.

The L.A. station premiered four shows this month, including the much-anticipated drama "American Family." That may not sound all that impressive, but four premieres are the most KCET has been able to manage in any single month in more than a decade.

The lack of national programming coming out of the Public Broadcasting Service's Hollywood affiliate has been a thorn in Al Jerome's side since becoming president of KCET in 1996. A broadcast television veteran who spent nearly a decade as president of the NBC station group, Jerome knows that the area's large talent pool is one of KCET's greatest assets.

"We are working every day to be the gateway to public television for people in the entertainment community," he said. "The idea is to do programming that will inspire foundations and corporations and individuals to see the value of KCET."

Financial problems, including over-budget production of the national science series "Cosmos" in the early 1980s, resulted in layoffs and the forced resignation of then-President James Loper. The station nearly shut down its national production department, which would only occassionally put out programs for years to come.

"(KCET) had been allowed to sort of wind down," said former NBC President Grant Tinker, a member of the station's board. "In this community full of creative people it's a shame if KCET can't tap into that community and turn out a certain amount of dramatic programming."

Hollywood ties

In the hopes of rebuilding KCET's image, Jerome has turned to Hollywood for help. He made Mary Mazur, a development executive with long experience in film and television, senior vice president of programming and production. He also invited Tinker and other Hollywood veterans to join KCET's board. The group now includes actress Debbie Allen and entertainment lawyers Skip Brittenham and Bruce Ramer.

KCET hasn't always had such an open-door policy. The station was notorious for being unresponsive to independent producers in its own backyard.

"There's some misunderstanding...(but) I also think some of it has been valid criticism," Mazur said, explaining that KCET was often limited by PBS' reluctance to support its pursuits. Support from PBS, an association that buys and distributes programming among public television stations, can decide whether national programming projects get off the ground.

"Prior PBS administrations...were less inclined to embrace the Hollywood community and I think it was harder for KCET to get programming funded," Mazur said.

Opening its doors to Hollywood helped KCET build the slate of national programs offered this month. It was veteran director Gil Cates who approached the station about producing "Collected Stories," which became the second installment of KCET's "PBS Hollywood Presents" series. Filmmaker Gregory Nava decided to co-produce "American Family" with KCET because he found station officials receptive to his series about a Latino family living in East L.A.

The two other shows that premiered are "Senior Year," a 13-part documentary chronicling the lives of students at Fairfax High School, and an "American Experience" documentary on President Woodrow Wilson, produced with WGBH in Boston.

"To have four big premieres in one month probably hasn't happened in probably 15 to 20 years," said KCET spokeswoman Barbara Goen.

Drop in funding

When Jerome first came to KCET, he focused on making the station leaner (during his tenure staff levels have gone from 260 to 170) and completing a conversion to digital, which cost about $20 million and was completed in 2000. Also, the production operation had to be built up again after being nearly shut down in the 1980s.

Money remains a key stumbling block. The recession has slowed the flow of much of the corporate underwriting and foundation support that keeps public television stations going. The Sept. 11 attacks led to a sharp drop-off in individual contributions.

By November, KCET, which gets about 50 percent of its funding from individuals, faced a revenue shortfall of nearly $1 million and Jerome went on the air to ask for support. A three-percent cutback in expenses and aggressive fund-raising in December has put the station on track to meet its $50 million annual budget, Jerome said. Much of the funding for the new shows aired on KCET this month was secured long the before the revenue dip.

The station's next big premiere, an eight-hour documentary titled "Shape of Life," is scheduled for April and production is set to begin on the third installment of "PBS Hollywood Presents." But Mazur concedes she isn't sure when KCET would have another month like January.

"I certainly hope this wasn't my one grand month," she said.

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