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KCET adjusts its focus

The public TV station approaches age 40 with high hopes but low revenues, and for guidance it's gone Hollywood.

August 17, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

KCET's historic Sunset Boulevard soundstages are dark. "Life & Times" co-anchor Jess Marlow has retired for good. His colleague Val Zavala is pounding the pavement for stories, conducting interviews from the Hollywood Bowl and Santa Anita racetrack instead of the studio, part of a drastic cost-cutting move. Even the business of renting the public station's soaring Spanish-style buildings to talk shows has dried up. The life and times of L.A.'s major public television station have been exceptionally bleak lately.

KCET President Al Jerome and his management team envision a brighter scenario, one that would have the 1920-era studios again blazing. In their Technicolor dreams, National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley would be hosting a nightly PBS talk show from KCET by January, adding his voice to the national debate of the election year. Richard Dreyfuss would be taping a new "PBS Hollywood Presents" drama as a pilot for a series set in New York.

And by spring, toddlers would be scampering around as part of a KCET-produced groundbreaking daily program aimed at bolstering the teaching skills of pre-school caregivers.

Whether this future ever lights up the TV screens depends on money, tens of millions of dollars that the station doesn't have.

Like public stations elsewhere, KCET has had to cope with a swift post-Sept. 11 economic downturn that left no money for new programs and dwindling funds for ongoing shows.

But even before that, the station was in the throes of an intense, sometimes painful period of change, adjusting to a new management team. When Jerome, a longtime NBC executive, arrived in 1996, "the average [employee] tenure was 15 years and they had been doing business a certain way," he said. "It made it very difficult to advance the concept of change." So Jerome put the senior staff through "workouts," daylong group exercises in goal-planning and bureaucracy-busting, a key management technique of NBC parent General Electric. Meanwhile, the board has been revamped to include the kind of Hollywood players previously held at an arm's length, from former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker to "Cast Away" director Bob Zemeckis. The fund-raising process is being overhauled to target deep-pocketed donors. Programming priorities have radically shifted to emphasize what's unique about Los Angeles. The result is a station poised to play the kind of influential role in both local and national programming that it hasn't in years, if all the elements come together as planned.

Like other public stations around the country, KCET has cast itself as a last bastion of localism, the only independent in a market whose TV voices are increasingly controlled by an ever-smaller group of consolidating corporate owners. Jerome's goal is to "allow KCET to flourish regardless of whether PBS' ratings go up or down." But with federal funding limited and corporations and foundations cutting back, it's a big step between claiming the mantle and actually producing the programs to fulfill that mandate.

Through the blur of numbers, the current picture isn't pretty. Membership dropped by 40,000 between 2001 and 2002 before stabilizing last year at about 255,000. Corporate underwriting, budgeted at $4 million for fiscal year 2003 (which ended June 30), came in at $2.5 million. Foundations have cut back. When "Life & Times" abruptly lost one of two foundation funders and the $1 million couldn't be replaced, the flagship 11-year-old daily report on Los Angeles-area life had to choose between the studio or life on the streets, where it moved in July, forgoing its timely live studio interviews.

Final figures for the just-concluded fiscal year aren't in, but KCET said it expects to be roughly $5.5 million in the black. Operations , will be about $2 million in the red because of the corporate money shortfall and an accounting adjustment from a previous year.

With the station running on empty financially, some programs never got off the ground and others died, including a nationally distributed book show hosted by L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison. In six years, layoffs have claimed 100 jobs -- 40% of the staff. The remaining 160 employees have been told that all donations will go to operating expenses, with any new shows funded separately. The continual retrenchment has left many longtime staffers dazed and demoralized.

Across the U.S., stations are grappling with the same issues. San Francisco's KQED eliminated 11% of its staff in July and cut workweeks and pay by 10% for those remaining. New York's WNET and Boston's WGBH, two of PBS' most prolific producers, laid off staffers earlier. Orange County's public station KOCE is fighting for its future, as the financially strapped Coast Community College board this week debates selling it to a televangelist or merging it with KCET, which has put in a bid.

In Hollywood, not of it

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