The head of PBS says Los Angeles-area fans of the public broadcasting network shouldn't worry. One way or another, PBS series such as "Sesame Street" and "Masterpiece" will stay on local airwaves, even if they're not on KCET-TV come next year.
The flagship of PBS in the local market for 40 years, KCET announced Friday that it was pulling out of the network, effective Jan. 1, and becoming an independent outlet after wrangling with network officials for months over dues and other issues. The move was instantly assailed by viewers, many of whom worried about being denied access to favorite shows.
"We'll make sure that the full range of PBS programming is available in Los Angeles," Paula Kerger, PBS' president and chief executive, said by phone Sunday afternoon.
With less than three months to prepare, however, PBS will have to hustle. Talks had stretched out for months when KCET abruptly made its announcement last week. "How quickly it happened was a surprise," Kerger said.
KOCE-TV, the Orange County "secondary" affiliate that airs only 25% of PBS programming, will likely step up and become a primary station "if that's what we need them to do," Kerger added.
"We have to ramp up in a hurry," Mel Rogers, president and chief executive of Huntington Beach-based KOCE, said. "It's in our interest to make sure viewers get the same content at the time they're accustomed to watching it. That's the goal we're shooting for."
The four public TV stations in the area — KCET and KOCE as well as KVCR in San Bernardino and KLCS, licensed to the Los Angeles Unified School District — had recently started working together to save money, avoid duplicating schedules and raise funds. That consortium will continue without KCET, with streamlining some internal operations and cross-promoting programming at the top of the to-do list, said Larry Ciecalone, general manager and president of KVCR.
"The collaboration would've been stronger with four stations, but the market will still win with three of us involved," Ciecalone said. "We'll make sure the viewers get the best public TV has to offer." In a conciliatory gesture, Kerger said "the door is not shut at all" for KCET to retain some role in the consortium, even as an independent station. KCET officials have said they will consider such a role.
KOCE, which has more than 5 million viewers and an $11-million annual budget, is likely to take the lead in any consortium now, becoming the primary PBS affiliate in the area. Rogers said the station will spend "in the seven figures" to boost the amount of network programming it carries.
Though details are in the works, executives said they are trying to nail down schedules so that well-loved series will continue in prime time. "Masterpiece," for instance, would shift after December to Sunday nights on KOCE from its current Thursday night spot on KCET, executives said. The two other local PBS stations would run the show in another slot, after the KOCE airing.
"It's going to be very hectic, and we have to shift gears into something we weren't quite ready for," Ciecalone said. "But we're up to the challenge."
In the meantime, reaction from fans to the KCET-PBS split has been swift and, for the most part, negative.
"I will never watch again, nor give another penny," said one commenter on The Times' Show Tracker blog. "KCET has just committed suicide. RIP," wrote another. One called KCET "an oasis" for its airings of "Live From the Met" and "Antiques Roadshow," while many questioned the wisdom of leaving the system.
David Sams, a TV veteran and former King World syndication executive who's now a consultant, said he understands that the move has upset viewers. But he thinks it was a tough choice, spurred by economic and competitive realities, and could lead to a KCET reinvention. He noted that he's been a colleague of KCET chief Al Jerome for many years.
"Even public television is a business, and they have to face the facts that there are a lot of stations out there like History and Discovery and National Geographic competing for the same eyeballs," Sams said by phone. "This could be an opportunity for KCET to remake itself, be more innovative, more forward thinking and more relevant to our unique culture in L.A."
L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti said he'd like to see more local coverage on KCET as an independent station.
"I hope they take some of the money they can save from this and pour it into good, locally focused broadcasting that's in the public interest," Garcetti said. "L.A. still has millions of stories that go untold."
KCET will be giving up name-brand shows such as "Sesame Street" but that doesn't mean it'll fail as an independent: "I've seen good, indigenous public broadcasting break off from the mothership before," he said.
Kerger, the PBS head, said she was disappointed by the outcome in the KCET case. But the network could not accommodate the station's request that it reduce its dues, which Jerome had complained were too high.
"KCET's percentage of the dues that they pay — and this we've debated, but the numbers are the numbers — the percentage of the dues that they pay is in line, in fact, slightly less than the percentage other stations pay," Kerger said. "It was unfair to other stations in the system to strike a separate deal with KCET."
"I feel very bad about that, but I have to really consider the full range of stations, not just one market," she said.
Staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.