Two years after a damaging split with PBS, executives at public TV station KCET (Channel 28) are hoping a recent merger with a satellite TV network will bring the station back to prosperity.
Last month, KCET finalized a merger with Link Media, the non-profit parent of San Francisco public TV satellite network Link TV. The combination, called KCETLink, is now headquartered at KCET’s Burbank office and studios.
Viewers will get their first peek at the station’s new image this week when KCET airs the program “LinkAsia” for the first time Friday.
Al Jerome, chief executive of KCETLink, said joining with Link is a major step in his long-term plan to redefine KCET.
“You’re going to see a spirit of more experimentation,” he said. “We had been so predictable for so long. We decided to embrace change wholeheartedly.”
For about 40 years, KCET was L.A.’s primary PBS affiliate, until the dues rose to the point where the local station couldn’t pay. It split from PBS, which led to the removal of “Sesame Street” and other PBS programming that had made up about 70 percent of KCET’s daily schedule.
In response, the station has been expanding its original programming. In 2011, the station signed a development deal for up to $50 million in financing with former Disney executive Dominique Bigle, though it hasn’t resulted in much programming. Last year, the station increased the frequency of its newsmagazine show “SoCal Connected” into a daily half- hour program rather than an hourlong program aired once a week.
But KCET is still financially reeling from the split. Revenue has fallen to $23 million for the year ended June 30, compared with $44.6 million in revenue for the year ended June 30, 2010. To free up cash and pave the way for a move to its new facilities in Burbank last year, KCET sold its longtime headquarters on Sunset Boulevard for $45 million in 2011.
Meanwhile, revenue is spiking for the competition in Costa Mesa. KOCE (Channel 53), the Orange County PBS affiliate, has become the primary PBS affiliate in Los Angeles. The station had revenue of $14.5 million for the year ended June 30, up 38 percent compared with $10.5 million for the year ended June 30, 2010.
Marc Hand, a co-managing director of non-profit public broadcasting advisory firm Public Media Co. in Boulder, Colo., said the timing was right for KCET’s deal with Link since the sputtering economy is still putting pressure on private donations and corporate underwriting, and creating a fresh image might help bring in new donors.
“The challenge for public TV is how to do something different to reach (new) audiences,” he said. “To some extent that takes a change in content.”
Link began broadcasting in 1999, taking advantage of a Federal Communications Commission rule that set aside bandwidth for noncommercial broadcasters on DirecTV and Dish. Link has since garnered popularity for international shows such as one-hour Danish crime drama, “Borgen,” as well as a slate of international public affairs shows, such as “Mosaic: World News From the Middle East.”
Discussions between Link and KCET began early last summer when Paul Mason, who had recently been appointed chief executive at Link, travelled to Los Angeles to meet with content producers and lawyers.
In the process, he met with Channing Johnson, a partner at Century City law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP and chairman at KCET, which led to talks with Jerome about potential opportunities to pool resources. As the talks progressed, the respective boards gave the go-ahead for the two sides to enter negotiations in June and the deal was announced in October.
No money changed hands in the deal, but Mason said he expects the combination to benefit both sides. That’s because they can share programming, and there could be other cost savings from the merger. Furthermore, Link’s younger demographic, along with its experience in getting foundation support, might bring some new donors to KCET.
“Very few people are talking to that (younger) demographic,” he said, “We talk to that demo. It seems to me we’ve got a little something that can help KCET.”
For example, Link is developing a comedy and reality program called “Standup Planet,” which focuses on issues in the developing world such as hunger and the AIDS epidemic. The show will be hosted by local comedians in different parts of the world. The program will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Link has also received funding from the Knight Foundation and Bertha Foundation. Link had revenue of $7.1 million for the year ended June 30, 2011. The channel is available to about 33 million subscribers of DirecTV and Dish Network. KCET is available to about 5.6 million households in Southern California.
Jerome said he’s confident the deal will allow KCET to expand membership, especially among younger people. He noted, for example, the popularity of Link TV’s mobile application.
Meanwhile, KCET has been embracing the digital age with “Artbound,” a program that allows viewers to vote online for art projects they would like to see featured in short documentaries airing on KCET.
“If public TV does not embrace the younger demographic, we don’t have a future,” Jerome said. “If they watch us, we have a better chance of getting their financial support.”
KCET and Link TV will continue to broadcast over the air and on satellite, respectively, as separate brands, although some programming will be shared, such as “LinkAsia.” The program features dubbed translations of newscasts from countries such as South Korea and China. Jerome said that he believes it is the type of fare that could play well with L.A.’s international community.
Meanwhile, KCET is hoping the merger can help clean up its balance sheet. The station reported a loss of $7.4 million in its most recent fiscal year. Seven of KCET’s employees were laid off and the station expects to realize $1 million in cash savings from reducing staff size this year.
Almost half of Link’s 37-person staff was laid off. Some of its employees are moving to KCET’s new Burbank studio and office. Mason, chief strategy officer at KCETLink, is moving to Los Angeles. KCETLink has 132 employees.
Public Media’s Hand said the combination of a local independent station and a national satellite network is a novel approach to public TV, which has long been known mostly for the large network of stations that pay dues to PBS in exchange for popular programming. Straying from that formula, he noted, represents a certain leap of faith.
Jerome acknowledged it’s been a challenge to overhaul his station, but expressed optimism that the combination with Link is a turning point.
“I think it’s something that’s different and unique,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
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