Longtime Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET has announced that it is giving up its PBS affiliation at the end of 2010. Apparently the dues that PBS requires from KCET have become a bit too cumbersome:
Last year, the dues totaled nearly $7 million, or almost one-fifth of the station's $37-million net operating revenue. Station officials say that amount is far too high. PBS, fearing that a reduction in the sum could lead to demands for similar discounts from other member stations, refused to budge.
The back-and-forth between the two parties appears a little bit like a circular firing squad.
So where does this leave KCET? They are losing the ever-popular Sesame Street (the last PBS program in production that actually predates PBS itself) and whatever other kids' programming they have now (and I've written recently about the popularity of at least one of those programs), as well as the PBS NewsHour, Nova, Masterpiece, Nature, and so on. With that said, this doesn't leave KCET with no programming whatsoever, of course. Per Al Jerome, president/CEO of KCET:
"As an independent public television station, KCET will be committed to investing in Southern California by developing, acquiring, producing and distributing content across all media platforms," he added. "We will continue to offer the KCET audience programming from leading national and international sources. Some of these series are currently on our air."
And, of course, there are many programs aired on public television that do not come from PBS, including a lot of British shows, most notably longtime favorites such as Doctor Who. There is also a fairly large public television syndicator, American Public Television, which offers programs in just about all genres.
Suffice it to say, then, that KCET will not be at a loss for programming. But will its members (and the literally millions of people in the LA area who are not members) be happy about these changes? The response has been mixed, as per these two comments at the LA Times blog:
Al Jerome is a smart guy. I've known him for years. He once headed up the NBC stations. He's right on target for making this decision. PBS charges way too much for its programming--considering there are multiple PBS stations in the LA area carrying the same thing. KCET now has an opportunity to reinvent itself. They can still get many of the series that PBS carries directly from the program suppliers--who will do great deals because they want their programming seen in LA on the major (once) PBS outlet.
Bad move. They've lost me as a loyal viewer and annual contributor.
PBS, meanwhile, is not without an outlet in the LA area, as they have multiple stations available there. Orange County station KOCE is poised to become the primary affiliate in the area. (KOCE's statement about the matter may be found here.)
But this situation leads to the question about whether the departure of such a cornerstone affiliate from PBS is an aberration or the beginning of something larger. Public television has survived, thus far, in an era in which myriad viewing options offering similar programming to PBS are available to the viewer, but this seems unlikely to continue indefinitely. The question has been raised, and is being raised more often now, whether PBS needs to be funded at all. Would Sesame Street be different if it were on another channel, for example? (And the answer to that, for several years, was no, Sesame Street was no different when it aired on Noggin.)
Another part of the equation, from my observation, is this: pledges aren't going as far as they once did. The PBS affiliate where I grew up had one pledge drive a year (Festival, they called it then, and for all I know they still do) in March, and then there were no more annoying interruptions for the rest of the year. I know that there are now more pledge drives now in the area where I grew up, just as there are probably multiple pledge drives a year for most PBS stations. This may relate to the previous example I gave; why give to PBS when the kids can watch Nick Jr, or whatever? And why bother with my local station at all when I can watch just about all PBS shows online? (This is where I think we're headed: entertainment and/or instructive programming entirely on demand.)
And the last part, as evidenced by the recent firing of Juan Williams from NPR, is, of course, that public broadcasting has long been seen as partisan and liberal. Already many (including one Sarah Palin) have called for federal funding for NPR to be killed, and some, such as Senator Jim DeMint, have included PBS in the defunding call for perceived (by many, including me) liberal bias. (You wouldn't want to give federal funding to Fox News, now, would you? Neither would I.)
So what is the answer? Is public broadcasting going to survive? I say no...at least not in its present form.
And KCET and PBS's lose-lose situation is just going to accelerate the decline.