Public TV stations face challenges on West, East Coasts

njn_logo.gifAll of the PBS TV stations in the state of New Jersey may go off the air entirely early next year.

The New Jersey network’s governing authority meets on Wednesday to consider how to survive – or sell. Kept alive by a subsidy by state taxpayers that is scheduled to end shortly, one option on the table is a merger with New York City’s WNET and/or Philadelphia’s WHYY.

This news comes as KCET in Los Angeles prepares to drop PBS programming in three weeks in favor of an independent public TV schedule that starts next month.

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These changes in 40-year relationships on the west and east coasts reflect the crunch facing public TV: declining revenue from governments and underwriters and costs that are at best flat. Unlike public radio, which has a growing audience and strong financial support, public television faces increasing difficulty.

But consider the larger context in television viewing: more and more viewers are turning away from cable and satellite, in favor of the Internet and free broadcast TV.

You want movies, uncut and commercial free? Netflix subscribers are growing so rapidly that they will exceed the number of subscribers to Showtime TV early in 2011.

You want alternative music? On radio, college stations are moving their indie formats to the Internet, which is where students are listening anyway.

For Los Angeles viewers, the immediate question may be how these trends help or hurt KCET’s life after PBS.

One encouraging sign for the station: For the first time, the number of people watching television over cable or satellite is declining, according to an analysis by media research firm, SNL Kagan. Advantage KCET, because people who drop cable can no longer watch such popular channels as CNN or HBO — so many could turn to KCET. The more people are turning from cable TV to old-fashioned rabbit ears, the more that should channel viewers to channel 28, which is available free and over the air.

More good news for KCET: Not having to pay the multi-million-dollar fee for PBS programs will help the station conserve cash.

Still more good news: Local fundraising may have at least an early spike, with a million-dollar grant from the Ahmanson Foundation And according to published reports, Tavis Smiley was still expected to pay KCET for at least a year to produce his nightly PBS program – which will no longer air on KCET.

Now the bad news: KCET’s new program schedule that starts next month will resemble in many ways the program schedule of the New Jersey TV network, a schedule which attracted such little support from viewers and funders that the New Jersey stations face going dark next month.