Independent KCET completes move to Burbank, but questions loom

KCET-TV, once the powerhouse PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, is now in its second year of independence from PBS with new production studios in Burbank, a new slogan and new promises about the great programming it will produce in the future about Southern California.

The moves are all part of the station’s attempt to break away from PBS (announced in January 2011) and go it alone as one of the nation’s largest independent public television stations.

Since April 16, 2012, the company has been broadcasting its local news and other programming from two floors—approximately 55,000 sq. ft.—in a brand new LEED Gold certified (environmentally friendly) facility called “The Pointe” It includes an open, expansive floor plan featuring 10-foot floor-to-ceiling glass looking out at panoramic views of the city and mountains. The building is centrally located along studio row in Burbank, across the street from NBC and adjacent to Disney, Warner Bros. and ABC studios.

KCET utilizes the latest HD broadcast technologies, including a 56 HD channel Universal MediaLibrary system from SeaChange International (soon to be called XOR Media) that supports the station’s new master control play-to-air operations. One of its two production studios is equipped with three robotic cameras and virtual set technology from Orad Hi-Tech Systems.

The green screen set uses Orad’s ProSet software to replace (on air) physical furniture and backdrops for each KCET production. This allows the station to realize significant production cost savings. The crew can also change sets between shows quickly and show producers can be a lot more creative. They now have access to up to six HD video inputs (or 12 SD inputs) and a 360-degree shooting range with sensor or infrared based tracking. Virtual studio and on-air graphics are both controlled from the same Orad ProSet application.

Led by Gordon Bell, KCET’s senior vice president of operations and engineering, the design and installation process was “a Herculean undertaking” that spanned more than 12 months and involved many “gut-wrenching decisions.” Local contractors, electricians and system integrators worked for months to complete the task on time and on budget.

“We wanted one studio to have as much versatility as possible and virtual seemed to meet all of our requirements, including a favorable ROI, quick changes for sets, no set storage, augmented reality elements—and, of course, the ability to create amazing looking sets,” said Bell. “Virtual affords us many creative and economic opportunities not available to us previously.”

Prior to the move, the two floors occupied by KCET at new building were completely bare and had to be constructed into office and production spaces. Downtown Los Angeles-based architecture firm, Gensler designed the new studios and facility interiors.

Even though the new studios are now fully operating, the Los Angeles Times reported KCET’s revenue is way down and few new shows have been produced since it bolted PBS last year.

Chief Executive Al Jerome told the newspaper the station is making “really good progress” in its three-year plan to create a winning destination without public TV.

However, the newspaper said critics inside and outside the station see a sluggish old media franchise that spent lavishly on its new studio in Burbank, is burdened with a top-heavy management and has been slow to launch new shows to replace the familiar old ones.

A partnership with onetime Walt Disney executive Dominique Bigle, which promised a new jolt of vitality and five new programs, so far has resulted in rebroadcasts of only older programs. The “Times” reported that Bigle’s company been reduced to a tiny operation that has been late on some of its bills, according to several people familiar with the company.

In addition, the company relied on mass-market DVDs, and not just its own archive, for some segments of a nostalgia program it makes for station, according to these people.

Four people who have worked for Bigle’s Eyetronics Media & Studios said in interviews that they and others had gone without pay for as long as six weeks during the last year. The company owes several months’ back rent on its Encino offices, according to a representative for the landlord.

Although revenue has fallen, the Times said the station has gotten relatively good news lately on viewership—with its prime-time ratings approaching what they were before it dumped PBS on Jan. 1, 2011. KCET bolted because of what it called excessive dues. The station has also won some praise for its online operation, particularly the magazine-like “Departures,” which offers video, photos and maps as part of its coverage of L.A. communities.

Even so, critics don’t give KCET a good chance for survival. “There is no way, absolutely no way, that KCET can survive as a television station,” said Jack Shakely, former head of the giant California Community Foundation, which once contributed to KCET programs and pledge drives.

“They are like the book store that opens just when all other book stores are awash in red ink, a book store that cannot sell bestsellers, can’t sell popular classics, sells books you’ve never heard of and then asks you to contribute to the book store anyway.”

Three other executives at prominent Los Angeles nonprofits, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate the station’s executives, said they had eschewed giving or partnerships with KCET because of their concerns for the station’s future.