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Funding down 41% at KCET

Contributions and grants dropped to $22.3 million, after the public station cut its ties with PBS. KCET hopes new programming will boost fundraising.

February 09, 2012|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Chris Botti, Grammy award winning trumpeter, left, plays the horn for Roy Firestone, the host of "L.A. Tonight," on KCET.
Chris Botti, Grammy award winning trumpeter, left, plays the horn for Roy… (Ed Krieger )

KCET-TV is trying to forge ahead without PBS, but it's doing so with far fewer donations than in the past.

The network, which severed ties with PBS last year, announced a new slate of spring programming Wednesday, including documentaries and a BBC detective series import, that executives hope will attract new viewers — and, potentially, new donors.

But financial documents obtained by The Times show that the station's balance sheet has taken a big hit since it left PBS at the start of 2011.

Contributions and grants plunged 41% last year to $22.3 million, according to an audited annual financial statement. That figure includes corporate giving as well as money from individual donors.

Donations are the lifeblood of any public broadcaster, because those stations cannot rely on the traditional commercial advertising sold by for-profit outlets. KCET and other public stations are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and can air "sponsor messages" but not the 30-second spots seen on most local stations.

On the positive side, KCET logged a one-time gain of $28.8 million from the sale of its historic studio property in Silver Lake (the actual purchase price was $45 million, but the station adjusted the figure because it temporarily leased back the property). This year, the station is scheduled to move to a high-rise in Burbank. The station also sharply trimmed its spending on programming and production — down 37% to $21 million.

A station spokeswoman confirmed the drop in donations. KCET has recently hired staffers to help boost fundraising efforts.

"We saw an uptick in the 4th quarter 2011," Al Jerome, the station's president and chief executive, wrote in an email. "We're hopeful this trend continues through 2012."

Public TV stations around the country have been slammed the last few years, as viewers and corporations have snapped their pocketbooks shut during hard economic times. But KCET seems to have been hit harder than most.

"That is a big drop," Alan G. Stavitsky, a public media expert and associate dean at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, said of KCET's results. "All of public television has suffered significantly since the recession, but that drop seems to be bigger than [for] the average public television station."

KCET left the PBS network at the start of 2011 after months of disputes over dues and other issues. Station officials have said the high cost of dues that member stations must pay, combined with the falling ratings of PBS shows, were major factors in the decision to exit.

However, over the last year, PBS has scored a major hit with the British costume drama "Downton Abbey," greatly enhancing its appeal for ordinary viewers who may not have checked out the network's offerings in years. That series — along with the other PBS programming dropped by KCET — runs locally on KOCE-TV, the outlet based in Orange County, which is now the region's dominant PBS station.

KCET may not have "Downton Abbey" on its schedule, but on Wednesday, it announced a new slate of spring programs, including new episodes of the talk show "L.A. Tonight With Roy Firestone," a documentary series about caregivers hosted by actress Holly Robinson Peete and a BBC crime drama import, "George Gently."

In his new batch of programs, running the week of March 12, former ESPN host Firestone will interview VIPs including former tennis star Andre Agassi, trumpet player Chris Botti and songwriter Burt Bacharach.

KCET and Firestone are aiming to turn "L.A. Tonight" into a nightly program. "That's what we're absolutely shooting for," Firestone said in a phone interview.

"We're currently raising money from corporate underwriters with the hopes of taking the show nightly," Jerome said.

In "Your Turn to Care," starting March 7, Peete will explore the issues confronted by adult children caring for elderly parents. The issue has special resonance for Peete, as she helped care for her father, a former "Cosby Show" writer, after he was stricken with Parkinson's disease (he has since died).

"I was part of the sandwich generation, where you're taking care of your parents and your kids," Peete said in a phone interview.

Starting March 11, KCET will import "George Gently," a popular BBC series about a private detective in 1960s Britain. Martin Shaw stars as the title character.

Finally, on March 10, the station will launch "Classic Cool Theater," the first fruit of its programming partnership with Eyetronics Media & Studios, reportedly worth upward of $50 million. The two-hour weekly program will feature classic films, cartoons and newsreels.

scott.collins@latimes.com

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