L.A. PBS station enters a new era

Aug 27, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Since Al Jerome became general manager of KCET-TV, Los Angeles, five years ago, the former NBC station group head has increased the profile of the PBS station in Hollywood.
Mr. Jerome has infused KCET with a commercial sensibility. KCET is now producing more national programs-shows such as “American Family,” which will air on all PBS stations around the country. “American Family,” which is co-produced by El Norte Productions, will start production next month and air in January 2002. The pilot was originally produced for CBS, which passed on the series. While Showtime runs “Resurrection Blvd.” about a Latino family, “American Family” will be the first Latin drama airing on broadcast television.
KCET also began producing “Hollywood Presents,” which will air quarterly and feature Tinseltown writers, directors and producers in original dramas. The first installment, “The Old Settler,” launched the series in April, and starred Debbie Allen and her sister Phylicia Rashad.
More than 25 percent of KCET’s board, which includes Grant Tinker, Brad Grey and Alan Horn, are active in the Hollywood community. Ms. Allen, Sydney Pollack and Haim Saban were elected to the board in June.
“I did feel that the national production had to tilt toward things that represented the distinctiveness in our community,” Mr. Jerome said. “I thought we had to forge a stronger relationship with the Hollywood community than we had, and I think we’ve done that.”
While some PBS stations have discontinued their local newsmagazine shows, when Mr. Jerome first came to KCET, instead of shutting down its flagship nightly show “Life and Times Tonight,” he beefed it up. He added an in-depth daily field segment, which devotes eight minutes to a local topic.
“There were those suggesting [that we] shut down the show. My view was that this was one of the most important services we provide to our community on what’s going on in news and public affairs,” Mr. Jerome said. “It was important that there be a daily broadcast that really gets into the substantive issues of education, technology, politics-the topics that are seeing less airtime on local news stations.”
Now the show, which costs $2.5 million to produce each year, has its own budget and does not dip into KCET’s general budget. In January, veteran Los Angeles anchor Jess Marlow became the show’s co-anchor, joining Val Zavala. The show grew 15 percent in ratings and 21 percent in share from 1999 to 2000, from an average 1.3 Nielsen Media Research rating and 1.4 share to a 1.5/1.7. This year in February and May sweeps, the show has increased its younger demographics. In February, it grew from a 0.2 rating to a 0.3 rating among adults 25 to 54 year to year. In May, it doubled from a 0.2 rating last year to a 0.4 among adults 35 to 64.
KCET’s other flagship show is “California’s Gold” with the popular Huell Howser, whose own brand of Southern gentility and laid-back interviewing skills belie that he was once a feature reporter for commercial television stations, including WCBS-TV, New York, and KCBS-TV, Los Angeles. In “California’s Gold,” he visits various sites and natural wonders in the state. While the show airs Sunday nights, Mr. Jerome repeats past episodes daily during the week. It also airs on all 13 PBS stations in the state. New episodes debut on Sept. 23.
Like many other stations around the country, KCET has had layoffs-26 earlier this year, a little more than 10 percent of its staff. “They’re looking for new ways to generate dollars; everyone’s trying to,” said one veteran broadcast executive. A few years ago, KCET began what has become one of its most successful fund-raising projects. Viewers can donate $100 to buy a brick that will be put into the pavement on the historic KCET lot where Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and such old movies as “Dark Manhattan” (1937), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), “El Cid” (1961) and the Charlie Chan and Joe Palooka series were shot.
KCET has raised close to $1 million and has put the effort on hiatus because there’s a backlog of bricks that need to be laid. In the future, the price will go up for each brick, and KCET’s Web site will offer a virtual tour so patrons can see where their bricks have been laid.