Good and great media operations have a sense of urgency about them. They fairly tremble with creative energy — a fever for the next big story or the next big program, and the best way to deliver it.
At Los Angeles' flagship public television station, in contrast, insiders tell me that for years there has been a more leisurely dynamic. Do good work, but don't press. Produce a show, but don't overload yourself. Maintain an even strain.
That dynamic needs to change and fast, given KCET's announced intention to dump PBS — with its signature "News Hour," "Antiques Roadshow," "Sesame Street" and the rest — to fly alone as an independent, publicly supported television station.
This revolution will be televised, with an almost entirely new slate of programs that will be launched in the new year. But what's almost as surprising as the new direction KCET will embark on is that its board is launching this revolution without the guidance of any known revolutionaries.
Board President Gordon Bava told me this week that current management, led by Chief Executive Al Jerome, will continue to direct the station. Bava said there has been no discussion on the 33-member board about ending Jerome's 14-year tenure. There's been no word of any other management changes.
Maybe Jerome deserves to keep his job and have a chance to reinvent the station he has guided with best intentions. But I have not heard a plausible rebuttal to skeptics who see a station that only occasionally has been what it must become now — a powerhouse of innovation.
KCET has to act on its long-discussed and only fitfully realized plans to produce more programs. It has to create something new and lively. Otherwise its dramatic decision to chuck PBS will result only in shifting its audience to competitors, led by Orange County-based KOCE, which will continue to carry PBS' national programs.
KOCE Chief Executive Mel Rogers said his station will be up to the task, though it's scrambling to be ready by Jan. 1. A week after the KCET decision, he still described being "blindsided." "I frankly have a hard time," Rogers added, "seeing what the upside is for KCET, doing what they did."
Bava and the rest of the KCET board may one day be hailed as the smart ones — who moved boldly to reverse shrinking audience and viewer donations at a time when most public television affiliates clung to the past.
The trade publication Current recently published results of a study that projected that support (other than from the federal government) for public TV stations would decline by $500 million, or almost one-third, to $1.2 billion from 2008 to 2013.
Public TV is also suffering the audience fragmentation of much of the media — viewers slipping away to other channels and the Internet. Bava e-mailed figures showing that KCET's prime-time audience has dropped 37% over the last five years. The audience for its children's programs has dropped 68%.
A chunk of the audience that remains has been venting its fury at KCET for cutting ties with "The Charlie Rose Show," "Nova," "Masterpiece" and the rest of the public TV universe.
The good news for the dispossessed is that it appears KOCE and other stations will step into the void. Most, if not all, of the regular PBS menu should still be available, if not always at the same hour they once were. We will see.
If that's the old public TV, it's up to Jerome & Co. to show us what the new public TV can be. So far we have only the sketchiest idea. Jerome declined to talk to me and Bava said the station is not ready to release its replacement schedule. But, he added: "I think people will be pleasantly surprised and find that it's a nice alternative to PBS programming."
The station has already debuted Sunday night movies, moving the venerable "Masterpiece" to Thursday nights. Much of the new programming will be imported. A gardening show produced in Japan and a news magazine from Canada are among the new shows being considered, insiders have told me.
But the station will have to offer a lot more than that, including products that are locally grown. "SoCal Connected," the station's local news feature show, has won numerous awards. It easily outshines the inane and noxious fare on the local news. (Disclosure: I did one commentary for "SoCal Connected.")
KCET has only managed funding, though, for about two dozen "SoCal Connecteds" a year. It could stand more, even a return to daily news and commentary like it once offered with "Life & Times." That would be a good start.
Even prior to dumping PBS, Bava told me, the board would have liked to produce more programs of its own. What's needed, he said, is more "focus and execution."