KCET has lost the financial contributions from a significant number of longtime members since its split from PBS 10 weeks ago and its ratings are down 51 percent compared with a year ago.
But the station’s Chief Executive Al Jerome prefers to embrace a glass-half-full attitude when he talks about how things are going for the largest independent public television station in the country.
“I think it’s up from here,” Jerome said.
That power of positive thinking could serve as an example for other public television stations that stand to lose millions in federal dollars if Congress succeeds in eliminating funding for public television and radio stations. This would also impact the budgets of Orange County-based PBS SoCal and local NPR member radio stations KPCC and KCRW.
Even though it dropped out of the network, KCET got $5.2 million of its current $40 million budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees the government’s public broadcasting investment. But the proposed legislation puts that money in jeopardy.
“We don’t know what amount we would get next year,” Jerome said. “We would still love to have it and we need it.”
KCET had been PBS’s flagship station in Los Angeles for 40 years but opted to go independent and stop airing such shows as “Charlie Rose,” “NewsHour” and “Antiques Roadshow” rather than pay nearly $7 million in licensing fees, up from $4.9 million in 2010.
Since Jan. 1, the station has been without PBS programming and has instead been relying mostly on reruns of British imports in prime time including the Helen Mirren police series “Prime Suspect” and the spy drama “Mi-5.”
This has led to an exodus of individual members – people who give in the $40 to $500 range. Jerome said the numbers have been significant but he did not have exact figures. On its website, KCET notes that nearly 60 percent of its budget comes from its members – not from business or the government.
“We anticipated in second half of fiscal year January through June that we would have significant losses in revenue,” Jerome said. “We cut expenses down to anticipate that. What will really be significant is as people get used to our line-up, how much of that funding will be restored. I don’t expect anybody to take anything on faith. It’s incumbent upon us to make the case for support.”
It will be tough to convince former fans, including award-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris, whose films have aired on KCET.
“I don’t think the slate of programming KCET has proposed in any way replaces what they lost,” said Harris, professor of film and TV production at USC. “I’ve stopped watching it and giving my money to it.”
At this point, KCET has not scheduled any major pledge drives. Instead, the station is relying on social media to raise money and has received major grants including $1 million from the Ahmanson Foundation to help with its transition to an independent station.
There are no plans to eliminate any of the station’s 123 employees at this time.
“So far, things are fine,” Jerome said.
Jerome said ratings are up for the station’s new block of international news programming that includes “BBC World News” and “Al Jazeera English News” from 4 to 7 p.m. daily. The ratings have been boosted dramatically since late January by the revolution in Egypt and the civil war in Libya.
“If you take ‘BBC World News,’ the 6 p.m. newscast is running against the first half of ‘PBS NewsHour’ and we are in a virtual tie,” Jerome said. “That’s pretty significant.”
But prime-time ratings at Orange County-based PBS SoCal, formerly KOCE-TV, jumped by 150 percent in January. Local viewers can now see much of their favorite PBS programming there.
“It’s just really terrific,” said PBS SoCal President Mel Rogers. “We are able to have the best content in the country. In the old days, we had access to about 25 percent of PBS content, now we have access to 100 percent of it.”
The 150 percent ratings rise in January translates into an average of 75,000 people watching PBS SoCal in prime time during that first month with the additional PBS shows.
“It was more immediate than I thought it would be,” Rogers said. “And there is a lot of growth to be had.”
Jerome said KCET was only 17 percent behind PBS SoCal in viewers on an entire day during the first nine weeks of 2011.
KCET has been averaging 13,000 viewers per quarter hour, compared with 27,000 viewers a year ago, while KOCE has been averaging 16,000, compared with 10,000.
PBS wouldn’t comment on the possibility of KCET rejoining the fold. Jerome said he doesn’t expect to but is open to the possibility.
“PBS had ample opportunity to have KCET remain in PBS,” he said. “We were not able to make an arrangement that was affordable or sustainable. We definitely wouldn’t say it’s impossible but we would not go back on the same basis.”
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