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KCET Trims Production Budget--and Expectations

Television: Station plans fewer national shows. CEO Al Jerome wants to refocus programming priorities.

June 19, 1996|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With substantially lowered production expectations, KCET-TV Channel 28 on Tuesday adopted a $42.5-million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1--the first under the leadership of its new president and chief executive officer, Al Jerome.

Just $8.7 million is being budgeted by Los Angeles' flagship public television station for the core productions area--primarily $1.8 million for the Emmy Award-winning weeknight series "Life & Times," now ending its fifth season, and $900,000 for continuation of the national children's series "Storytime," which began locally in the 1992 season.

Other programming-related expenditures include production for PBS' "NewsHour," Huell Howser's "California Gold," nonbroadcast activities in the educational enterprises division, promotion and various outreach activities.

Overall, the new budget is similar to the 1995-96 budget of $43.7 million that was adopted a year ago. But not with regard to production. Originally slotted for $10.8 million, this year's expenditures escalated to $13.9 million with such unexpected programming as "Searching for God in America," a four-hour series scheduled for PBS in July, and an additional eighth hour for "The Great War," a series about World War I that is due in November.

Jerome, in an interview attended by other station executives before the budget's adoption by KCET's board, attributed the production cutback to circumstance, explaining that such major national productions as "Great War," the three-part "Crime & Punishment" and "Searching for God" are ending in the current fiscal year, with no new series set to go into production in 1996-97.

He added that KCET's production budget would have been the same even had his predecessor, William H. Kobin, not retired early this year. "The fact that our national production is down is a function of what was in the pipeline," Jerome said.

Nevertheless, Jerome insisted that he is "positive" about the new budget, calling it a "good coincidence of timing" that will allow him and the station to refocus programming priorities.

Among his goals are finding the money for KCET to act as the "gateway to Hollywood" for PBS--bringing in major talent to work on public television programs--and to have "Life & Times" become a "daily, live, one-hour" series with documentaries as an integral part of its structure.

Some time in September, Jerome said, "Life & Times," which is live only on Friday nights, will take a baby-step in that direction. Instead of Wednesday night's half-hour documentary, "mini-docs" of about 10 minutes each will appear on three of the five broadcasts. Jerome said he'd like these shorter pieces to concentrate on people "who make a difference in the community."

Meanwhile, Jerome predicted that KCET will not fall into the red despite the fact that $2.4 million still needs to be raised by the end of June. The station announced last week that it was laying off 11 people and would leave six other positions unfilled.

KCET is budgeting $17.7 million in new membership contributions for fiscal 1997--even though the station expects to fall short of this year's $17.9 million goal by $500,000 to $1 million.

Jerome said the station is "seeing a surge" of late in membership response and noted that as the local economy turns around, so will individual contributions.

In addition to a new budget, KCET also got a new board chair Tuesday: Louise Henry Bryson, senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for fX Networks, Fox Inc.'s cable TV division. She is the first woman to hold that position at KCET. Bryson had been KCET's vice chair and was chair of the committee that chose Jerome to succeed Kobin.

She replaces Richard D. Farman, president of Pacific Enterprises. The new vice chair is Michael Connell, a lawyer, managing partner of Morrison & Foerster and active in Los Angeles' arts community.

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