Orange County public television station KOCE-TV (50) is planning an aggressive expansion into Los Angeles County now that KCET-TV (28) has left the Public Broadcasting Service and lost half of its audience.

The Costa Mesa station will begin airing original content produced for Los Angeles starting early next year and is even looking to lease local offices to oversee its initiative.

“We need to convince people in L.A. and surrounding regions that we’re not just concerned about Orange County,” said Mel Rogers, chief executive at KOCE, which has renamed itself PBS SoCal to reflect its broader programming

The station will start with public affairs show “Inside OC,” which the station is planning to rename “SoCal Insider” for the new season starting Jan. 4. The move will allow KOCE to grow its audience without incurring the production costs of an entirely new program.

The station is seizing the opportunity presented by KCET’s decision last year to end its relationship with the Arlington, Va.-based PBS after a dispute over dues it owed the association of public TV stations.

That dispute caused KCET to lose its most popular syndicated programming, including “NewsHour,” Charlie Rose’s interview show and “Masterpiece Theatre” – all of which can be seen locally on KOCE. In its place, KCET has aired a motley collection of programming from independent producers, as well as Arab news network Al Jazeera; the BBC; and NHK, a Japanese broadcaster.

However, KCET also is pursuing plans to create more local programming through a co-production agreement with Encino distribution and production company Eyetronics Media & Studios.

“In moving away from PBS, we’re going to be about our local community and about Southern California,” said KCET Chief Executive Al Jerome. “We have the shelf space to do it.”

Local focus

KOCE’s “SoCal Insider” will continue as a public affairs show hosted by Rick Reiff, executive editor of the Orange County Business Journal, which, like the Los Angeles Business Journal, is owned by California Business Journals.

The show is a panel discussion led by Reiff and features guests discussing the past week’s headlines. Current show sponsors include the Anaheim Convention Center and the UC Irvine.

Rather than focusing only on Orange County, the program will begin covering all six counties in Southern California. The expanded show has a production budget between $300,000 and $450,000, Rogers said.

Next year, the station is planning to produce two additional shows for the L.A. market, one with a focus on the business side of the entertainment industry and one that examines the fine arts scenes in Los Angeles and New York, he said.

Lawrence Wenner, professor at Loyola Marymount University’s school of film and TV, said that the station is seizing on a good opportunity, but it will be a difficult transition to make KOCE a truly regional broadcaster.

He noted that while KOCE changed its name to PBS SoCal last year, it retains the same call letters, which might confuse viewers into thinking the station remains Orange County focused. Thus, a strong, lengthy marketing campaign is needed.

“I think KOCE’s made steps by establishing itself as Southern California public television. But that’s a transitional move to provide a second face to what historically has been centered in Orange County,” he said. “The next step, it seems to me, is that it might need to change its call letters. It would help them mirror what they’re trying to do.”

However, Rogers said his station’s expansion into the L.A. market will be slow paced. One reason for that is the PBS dues structure, which is based on a formula that includes how much money a station raises.

Currently, the station pays $3 million a year for its entire PBS lineup, but a host of new programming would require more fundraising that could sharply raise fees, he said. One way around that would be to produce content that can be broadcast by other PBS affiliates, since the association reduces dues for stations that produce syndicated content.

Rogers said the new arts program, in development with New York PBS affiliate WNET-TV, which will focus on the New York and L.A. arts scenes, is being eyed for syndication, which will cut down on the stations’ dues.

Still, the long-term plan is to make the station a major West Coast producer of nationally syndicated public television content. The station is moving into new headquarters near the South Coast Plaza shopping center in Costa Mesa.

Rogers said the staff of 40 will probably grow to 60 to 75 as more programming is created for the Los Angeles County market. Much of the new staff will work in offices that the station plans to lease in Los Angeles County after it completes the Costa Mesa move next year.

“We’ve had some talks with L.A. County and L.A. city and Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa. The mayor suggested specific areas in Hollywood, downtown and Studio City,” he said.

‘Creative capital’

Already, KOCE’s ratings – and potential donors – have grown dramatically this year, simply by becoming the main outlet in Los Angeles for syndicated PBS programming. The station can be accessed on Channel 50 through its digital broadcasts, and on cable systems from Santa Barbara in the north to the Coachella Valley in the east and parts of San Diego County in the south.

Station executives said its prime time audience has doubled since last year, while KCET’s prime time ratings have been cut in half, to about 20,000 viewers, according to Nielsen research. Despite that, KCET still commands more viewers in Los Angeles than KOCE during prime time and throughout the day.

For its part, KCET is hoping to regain viewers and attract corporate sponsors by producing more content through its agreement with Eyetronics, which is led by French media entrepreneur Dominique Bigle, a former Walt Disney Co. executive. Many of the shows produced will have a local focus, such as “Ocean Alive,” a documentary about Southern California oceans hosted by Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Early news reports pegged the value of the agreement as high as $50 million over five years. But Bigle said that while his company may produce and acquire that much programming, only some will be co-produced with or distributed through KCET.

“We have content and we want it to be distributed. We are not funding the TV station,” he said.

It’s also been reported that KCET has seen donations crater since its departure from PBS. Station officials acknowledge individual membership is down but contend corporate sponsorships are up. However, the station has taken steps to shore up its finances.

In June, KCET sold its Silver Lake studio for $42 million to the Church of Scientology and will move next year into lower-cost leased space at a Burbank office tower. The move boosted programming funds and reduced operating expenses.

Jerome said he is optimistic that KCET will make the transition to a well-rated independent public television station with intelligent and engaging programming.

“The reason this works is that we’re in Southern California and it’s the creative capital of the universe,” he said. “We’re charting a new course that will be a new paradigm for public media.”

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