On Jan. 1, KCET became the largest public TV station in the United States independent of PBS. After a year of soul searching and negotiations with the Public Broadcasting Service, we on the KCET board of directors determined that in good conscience we could no longer ask viewers like you to pay PBS $7 million, more than twice what Orange County-based KOCE will pay, for PBS programming.
Rather than a defeat, this decision is an act of financial prudence, courage and confidence in our community. KCET will be financially stronger and in a position to rethink what public media can be in Southern California.
Over the last four years, viewership at KCET for children’s and prime-time programming plummeted. Yet during that same period, PBS increased our dues by more than 40 percent. Paying more and more for programming that fewer people watch makes no sense. KCET could have asked viewers to dig deeper to continue this incongruity, but it would have been unfair to do so.
Public television is in a financial crisis. Since 2002, the system has been losing money. During the past three years, 74 percent of PBS member stations operated with a deficit. While the public television crisis is acute, continued congressional support of the public television system is questionable in an era of budget cuts, resistance to tax increases, reduction of essential government services, competitive programming and reduced television viewership. As a result, the continued existence of the current system is vulnerable.
While many may disagree, we hope Congress continues its nearly five decades of funding for public broadcasting because public-interest media is needed now more than ever. But if the old public TV system is one of the difficult shared sacrifices that will be made as the nation attempts to balance its budget, KCET is prepared to face the future.
How? By transforming KCET from just a PBS-affiliated station into a new and essential public media center of Southern California.
When our transformation is complete, we will engage in a conversation with the community, on air, online and on social media. We will be as anxious to receive information as we are to convey it. We will convene the community around issues and solutions and will help other organizations communicate their vision for our community. Membership in the new KCET will offer the possibility of an active relationship – not just a passive viewing of a TV program and a donation. The new KCET will be a constant gathering of engaged communities and networks of people sharing an interest, a passion or a concern. We will inform the public and nurture its participation in our diverse community.
In order to deliver on our new mission, and attract adequate funding to provide the content we envision, we must provide something special and unique – content that differs from the three other PBS affiliates in Southern California, the other commercial television stations and the growing number of digital content providers. We must reinvent what public television is in Southern California.
Were our aspirations fully realized Jan. 1? No. While we believe our new schedule will be well received, we do not currently have the full array of content we intend to offer. But with sufficient funding, over the next three years we will produce locally focused content with national and international appeal; curate quality content produced by others; distribute this content on air, online and on mobile platforms; and engage our viewers in communities in which they reside both online and off. While cynics may question the practicality of this plan, KCET’s uninterrupted string of Peabody Awards, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards and Emmys for its originally produced programming should offer some confidence with viewers and supporters that it can be accomplished.
We are unaware of any major public television station that has transformed itself in the manner we plan. But few have the advantages of the rich cultural diversity, the abundant supply of world-class cultural institutions, theaters, actors, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers, technicians and the millions of potential viewers that Southern California offers. By fully integrating and collaborating with this creative economy, we believe the new KCET will be able to produce and present programming to our community that is truly special and unique.
We have commenced a $30 million capital raise that will enable us to launch our journey. The philanthropic community must not turn its back on the new KCET. We must prioritize KCET’s transformation from a PBS-dependent television station into an independent public media center Southern Californians trust and admire. If we fail, the millions of viewers who could be informed, entertained, educated, inspired and challenged by the new KCET will be the losers.
If we are successful in our transformation, not only will the Southern California community benefit, the new KCET will become a model for other public television stations across the nation that seek to rethink their missions and transform their business models to better serve their local communities.
We hope you give us a chance to make good on our promise, and watch us make history.
Gordon M. Bava is a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles and is chairman of the board of directors at KCET.
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