10 October 2010

No Longer a Prisoner of PBS

KCET-TV Los Angeles, the nation’s second oldest educational television station, has decided to break its affiliation with PBS at the end of the year and become an independent station. KCET has been the West Coast Flagship for four decades. As it stands, PBS does not have a station committed its prime time and childrens’ programming in the nation’s second largest television market.

Public Broadcasting will be losing its West Coast flagship station for four decades because of a dispute over affiliation dues costs. Ordinarily, affiliation fees comprise 13% of operating costs in exchange for PBS providing 70% of the programming. But PBS has been demanding close to $7 million a year, which is about 20% of their operating revenue. KCET President Al Jerome complained that his affiliation costs rose 40% between 2006 and 2009 and that he would not allow the station to “self-immolate” under those financial pressures.

KCET had been negotiating to lower the fees but PBS would not budge fearing demands for similar discounts from other affiliates. KCET tried to form a financial consortium with other Southern California public broadcasters, but without success. The loss of KCET’s affiliation will cost PBS 5% of its current revenues.

Even though it seems like arcane broadcast business news, it does highlight several points. Firstly, non profits like the Public Broadcasting System, and government sponsored corporations, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are not necessarily as pure as the wind driven snow or efficient in meeting the demands of the public.

Secondly, there are an abundance of Public Broadcasters in both television and radio that can have significant programming overlap in a given market. When KCET is no longer a prisoner of PBS, the Los Angeles market will still have KOCE (Orange County), KVCR (San Bernadino C.C.) and KLCS (LA Public Schools). This profusion in public broadcasting has each station scrambling for viewers as well as sponsors. PBS will probably designate another West Coast Flagship station and programming will need to be shifted between stations to cover the total array of programming.

While I am personally unfamiliar with LA public television programming, it sounds similar to PBS Between the Beltways. WETA (Washington Educational Television) is a PBS Flagship, WMPT (Maryland Public TV) is a major station that picks up PBS Prime Time, WNVC (an independent public station which shows many foreign language programs) and then WHUT (Howard University TV) will show some PBS shows on delayed broadcast and programs for “underserved niches”. In a market that revels on Public Broadcasting, in 20 years I do not know anyone who has bragged about watching a show on WHUT. I trust that Howard University students get great hands on experience working at the station, but it probably gets fewer viewers than Donnie Deutsch on CNBC.

The whole argument that Public Television was necessary to provide diversity in programming in the 1960s does not hold in the digital television era. Now there are with over the air subchannel multiplexing options, Community Access channels on Cable (that do not scratch an audience) as well as an ability for nearly anyone to podcast. I do not advocate totally eliminating public broadcasting, but surely some stations would not be missed in major markets. The owners of the spectrum could sell it, and with the reaped profits finance on-demand programs, dedicated internet streaming channels or other options.

KCET is dropping its affiliation with PBS but that does not necessarily mean that it has abandoned its mission. It will be an independent public television station. Since KCET produces Tavis Smiley, I suspect that they will still broadcast that nightly talk show. The same is true for the self produced A Place of Our Own/Los NiƱos en Su Casa series. I suspect that KCET will follow the foreign-language programming scheme that WNVC does in DC.

On a broader point, the KCET shakedown shows the folly of tax the rich. While KCET was a prominent and successful PBS station, the continually increasing burden of exorbitant affiliation fees made staying with PBS untenable. I hope that lawmakers will remember this principle during the Lame Duck session of Congress when considering stopping the increase in taxes on the high performers in our economy.

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