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KCET wins $10-million grant for two new shows

August 12, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Los Angeles public television station KCET has landed a $10-million underwriting grant -- its largest ever -- from oil company BP that, combined with state cigarette tax money, will allow the station to launch two new daily half-hour shows aimed at improving teaching skills of preschool caregivers.

The station, which has made the preschool education project a centerpiece of its revitalization efforts, will announce the grants today. The shows, the English-language "A Place of Our Own" and the Spanish-language "Los Ninos en Su Casa," will begin airing Sept. 13 on KCET.

The BP grant is particularly important for KCET's stability because it stretches over five years and can also be used to fund development of other educational programs that the station will develop under the name KCED (for "education"). (Before now, the station's largest grant came in the 1980s, a bequest of $8 million distributed over several years.)

The two new series, which will share a curriculum but use separate experts, will cost $10 million in their first year. In addition to BP money, $4 million will be contributed by First 5 California and $2.3 million by First 5 LA, the Proposition 10 cigarette tax programs to improve early childhood development. An anonymous donor also gave $1.5 million for the shows; smaller grants will make up the rest.

The unusual programs aren't for children but for nonprofessional caregivers, whether family members or neighborhood baby-sitters, who make up the vast majority of day-care providers in the state.

The shows, which will explore everything from how to handle violence between young kids to low-budget art and music projects, "help them realize their enormous value; they are not baby-sitters, they are educators," said Al Jerome, KCET's president and chief executive.

The programs will follow the midday broadcast of "Sesame Street," the preschool program that is watched by children and adults, with early morning and evening repeats. The shows will also be shown on most public television stations across the state.

BP's grant, the largest it has ever given to public television, comes at a time when the proliferation of arts, history, science and drama programming on cable has hurt public television ratings and corporate underwriting of public TV has dropped. The national Public Broadcasting Service reported a one-third drop in its corporate funding since 2001. Even such signature PBS series as "Masterpiece Theatre" haven't found sponsors.

KCET, with a annual operating budget of $53 million, has had its own funding woes, which have led to layoffs of 40% of the staff in recent years and stripped-down budgets for such flagship programs as the daily "Life & Times." The station has 159 full-time staff and 80 others who work on various productions.

In the face of the retrenchment, KCET officials looked for ways to make the station viable regardless of prime-time ratings. They settled on an educational strategy, with the preschool project first up.

"One-third of the children in our state are entering kindergarten not prepared whether with literacy or socialization skills," Jerome said. "So we decided to see if we could insert ourselves in the process ... and use the attributes of television to improve preschool care-giving."

KCET will have to raise additional funds for future years of the programs. But, Jerome said, "if these shows prove themselves to have an impact on care-giving, we will clearly have the ability to continue. The hardest part of it is getting it on the air."

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