Producing Home-Grown Shows Brings New Prosperity to KCET

Staff Reporter

When the board of KCET, L.A.'s public television station, ventured north to Santa Barbara earlier this month to consider the proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, it faced a dilemma other public stations might envy.

While voting to hold its budget in line with the previous year's, at about $53 million, it chose to buck its smaller network brethren by approving an increase in dues paid to the Public Broadcasting Service.

The station's decision that it could afford to support a 7.5 percent increase to the roughly $5 million in dues it pays each year reflects the gains made in developing more home-grown programming.

The same question a year earlier at first yielded an operating budget of $42.2 million. But the addition of three locally produced programs, two of which were picked up by public television stations across the country, tacked on another $10 million.

Though new program costs meant the station had to come up with about 25 percent more money, it also meant it was taking steps to overcome a stigma that it has done little to develop its own creative content in one of the largest television markets in the United States.

Debbi Hinton, KCET's chief financial officer and executive vice president in charge of operations, said that while the 2005 budget was likely to fluctuate because of the difficulty in projecting donation levels and final production costs, it still signals stability for the station.

Nationwide, corporate underwriting of public television programming fell 32 percent in the two-year period ended June 30, 2003, according to Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations for PBS, the private, non-profit enterprise that serves the nation's 349 non-commercial television stations.

At KCET, station officials said production and programming revenue collected annually through corporate underwriting has remained stable in recent years hovering in the range of $3 million. The bulk of its production and programming revenue roughly 75 percent of the total pot of $20 million in its current fiscal year has flowed from non-profit foundations.

Hinton said the station had been more successful raising funds from foundations than corporations, so "we weren't so vulnerable" when corporations tightened their philanthropic budgets.

Christine Sisley, executive director and treasurer of the Fletcher Jones Foundation, confirmed that it had awarded a seed grant of $100,000 for KCET's so-called KCEd educational programming initiative.

"KCET is not smack in the middle of our mission, but the educational aspect is what has been of interest to our trustees," Sisley said. "Our foundation's assets have recovered pretty well since 2001 and 2002."

In recent years, the station has endured some tough times. Its staff has been reduced by 40 percent over the last seven years, though no layoffs have come in the past year. "This has been a very good year," said Hinton. "We really held our own."

KCET's president, Al Jerome, set the creation of regional programming as a goal upon his arrival in 1996. KCET productions to hit the airwaves since Jerome arrived include the "Tavis Smiley Show," "PBS Hollywood Presents," "California Connected" and "American Family."

The tentative 2005 budget includes a new bilingual broadcast bringing childhood development advice to home caregivers. The program, to be called "A Place of Our Own," is going into production at KCET's studios at 4401 Sunset Blvd. and is scheduled for broadcast this September.

Major givers have been lined up for the new show, with at least $8 million raised to date, according to station officials. An additional $1.8 million must still be raised.

Despite KCET's encouraging overall outlook, some programs have had to deal with cuts, particularly the KCET-produced nightly news show, "Life & Times."

Will Caperton y Montoya, director of marketing and development of the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department, said his department cut its contribution to "Life & Times" to $56,000, 6.6 percent lower than the year earlier.

"It is a trickle-down effect due to the overall decrease in the department's budget, so we had to absorb some cuts in our grants program," he said.

Laura Blinkenberg, director of the South Pasadena-based L.K. Whittier Foundation, which had contributed $1 million to "Life & Times," said the foundation may reduce its funding in the upcoming fiscal year.

"We had a reduction in the value of our assets like everyone else, so we have reduced our giving some," she said. "We haven't decided what we'll do next year with KCET, but it should be somewhat less."

Nonetheless, Hinton and KCET's Roger Workman, executive vice president in charge of institutional advancement, said the program is fully funded at $1.5 million annually through next fiscal year.

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