L.A. flagship station tells PBS: Drop dead

October 15, 2010

Al Jerome

A former Chicago television station manager is at the center of a rebellion that could turn the public broadcasting business upside down.

In a move that's sending shockwaves across the country, the main public television station in Los Angeles announced plans last week to drop its affiliation with PBS after more than 40 years and go independent, effective Jan 1.

The man behind the revolt by KCET-TV is its president and chief executive officer, Al Jerome, who served as station manager of WMAQ-Channel 5 for three years (until 1980) and later as president of the NBC Television Station Group. He has headed the flagship public television station in Southern California since 1996.

"If KCET is able to thrive without PBS, this will be a paradigm shift for [public television] which will change our business model forever," predicted Dan Schmidt, president and CEO of Window to the World Communications, parent company of WTTW-Channel 11.

In severing ties to PBS, Jerome told The New York Times that KCET no longer could afford the annual dues of $6.8 million, representing 22 percent of KCET's net operating budget. The fees had jumped 40 percent from 2005 to 2009 and were frozen at that level despite a drop in station revenue, he said. Although the issue had been under discussion for years, the announcement reportedly caught PBS by surprise.

As a result, viewers will have to look to other public television stations in the L.A. area for such PBS franchises as "Frontline," "Nova," "Masterpiece," "Sesame Street" and "PBS NewsHour." The move will transform KCET into the largest independent public television station in the country. In a message to viewers, Jerome wrote:

"We are confident that KCET will be a success as an independent public television station as we have a track record of producing great local programming . . . We enjoy excellent relationships with our world-class creative community and there will be numerous opportunities for those who want to invest in our rich and diverse community to collaborate with KCET. While it will take time to deliver on the ultimate promise of KCET as an independent station, we will continue to serve our audience with a rich mix of programming, including all the genres we know our viewers love drawn from national and international sources."

Reaction on KCET's website and in published reports was generally negative, with many viewers expressing disappointment and vowing to discontinue their financial support for the station. ("We hope you'll give us a chance," Jerome pleaded.)

No one has been following the story with greater interest than Jerome's counterparts at other financially strained public television stations, including Chicago's Channel 11. In a memo this week to WTTW trustees and staff, Schmidt wrote:

"This will be a very interesting case study for the next couple of years.‚ The notion of going from the flagship PBS station in the second largest market to an independent is unprecedented.‚ We will learn a lot from this.‚ I believe PBS leadership believes KCET will soon learn that, without PBS, they will become a shell of what they are today.‚ I also believe PBS is concerned about setting a precedent that would lead other stations to demand the same concessions which would be very damaging to the already challenged [public television] business model. If KCET is able to thrive without PBS, this will be a paradigm shift for [public television] which will change our business model forever."
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