Fund cuts for public television lead to mergers; is there life after PBS?

pbs_logo.jpgWASHINGTON – Coping with reduced funding by state governments and other sources, public television stations are pursuing diverse options ranging from mergers and consolidation to dropping PBS network programs.

As reported in early July, funding cuts led to the demise of the New Jersey Network of PBS stations, which were merged into New York’s WNET. The station had earlier acquired WLIW on Long Island, so currently, WNET controls PBS programming on stations well to the east and south of New York City.

New York is not unique: San Francisco’s public television station, KQED, acquired KTEH, serving San Jose and the area to the south of San Francisco, and has just renamed the San Jose station KQED+. “All KTEH memberships will be migrated to KQED,” according to the station’s web site. KTEH’s website, the last vestige of the station, will disappear in October.

Public radio is also affected by funding cuts: Los Angeles Public Media, which launched to serve minority audiences in southern California, ended operations on June 15th after funding sources withered.

But in television, only a few stations have actually gone off the air – New Jersey Network went dark on June 30th. And, again as previously reported, Orlando’s PBS station is preparing to drop all public television programming and switch to a religious format as soon as FCC approval is granted.

As opposed to shutting down transmission, mergers are being promoted as an economically necessary transition of local public television stations into regional stations, with the mergers in New York and San Francisco cited as successes.

“Station collaborations, consolidations and mergers are all part of that transition,” Paula Kerger, President of the Public Broadcasting Service, told the Los Angeles Times.

PBS is merely following the lead of commercial television stations, which have merged or formed joint service agreements to pool news departments and sales offices. For example in Los Angeles, CBS bought KCAL, in 2002 and merged it into the decades-old CBS television station on KCBS-TV. Now the two are operated as a single local program source as CBS Los Angeles.

But Los Angeles is home to yet another variation in the evolution of public television, and it is one that does not bring joy to PBS: The longtime PBS flagship in southern California, KCET announced in fall 2010 that it would cancel all PBS programming and became an independent public television station after it was unable to negotiate an acceptable price for PBS programming.

The move was widely ridiculed as economic suicide.

According to conventional wisdom, any PBS station that dropped all public programming, from “Sesame Street” to the News Hour, would quickly be deserted by viewers and underwriters.

Conventional wisdom was wrong: There is life after PBS.

KCET lost almost half of its audience in January when it turned off PBS. But now the station has steadily built an audience with new local programs, international news broadcasts from the BBC and Al Jazeera and British dramas including “Prime Suspect” that viewers no doubt assumed were exclusive to PBS. (Disclosure: USC is a partner with KCET in some local news, public affairs and arts programming.)

By May of this year, KCET had grown to become the number one public television station in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times with an audience larger than the now primary PBS station, KOCE.

“We’re past PBS,” said Al Jerome, President and Chief Executive of KCET, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We’re doing our own thing now. All we have to do is stay to our game plan, and we’re gonna do just fine.”

Meanwhile, PBS announced that effective this fall, stations will interrupt prime time programs four times an hour with 90 seconds of what to viewers will look just like television commercials (PBS will call them “sponsor spots”), according to an article in The New York Times.

Every local station manager I have contacted, without exception, said this is a terrible idea, because it will end one of the most distinctive selling points for public television: programs that run uninterrupted by commercials.

PBS must have also heard this reaction: About a week after the announcement was made, Kerger sent a letter to stations that stated PBS would be backing away from the change. A copy of the letter is printed in Current magazine.

“Based on the thoughtful feedback PBS has received…from general managers, programmers, and others about the idea of restructuring prime time programs,” wrote Kerger, “it’s clear that we need a more thorough and deliberative process to assure ourselves whether we can proceed safely and effectively with this idea.”