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In financial distress, L.A.’s KCET ponders break from PBS

KCET in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s premiere public television stations, is in financial trouble and is considering breaking away from PBS. Other solutions may include forming a consortium with other area PBS affiliates or selling its production studios in Los Angeles.

The “Los Angeles Times” reported that the station has failed to find underwriters for its slate of programming during tough economic times and now faces hard choices. Among its options, said station management, are selling the station’s historic Sunset Boulevard studios or joining with KOCE, in Orange County, and other local public TV stations to save costs and coordinate programming.

The most drastic option is dropping out of the PBS network and going independent. KCET’s chief executive, Al Jerome, and its board chairman, Gordon Bava, told the newspaper that PBS overcharges the station on annual payments of $6.8 million. They complained they pay a lot more than other stations without getting exclusivity to PBS programs like “Nova” and “Frontline” in Southern California. KOCE can air some of the same programs usually a few days after KCET.

Some KCET loyalists complained to the newspaper that the station needs to clean up some messes of its own, including trimming what they called a top-heavy management and setting a more consistent plan for the future.

Stations in New York, Boston and Washington have been the big players in creating shows for the 358-station PBS network audience. KCET has been a more modest contributor. In recent years, it has focused more on catering to its Southern California base.

“I don’t think KCET is very pertinent to the community now,” one longtime employee, who asked not to be named for fear of alienating the station’s bosses, told the “Times.” “It makes me sad that a lot of people don’t even know who we are.”

PBS spokeswoman Anne Bentley disputed KCET’s reasoning and said the station pays about the same percentage of its operating revenue to the network as other affiliates. She said KCET got the lion’s share of its shows, and many other benefits, from being with the network.

Public television donors have dramatically cut giving to stations. An operating budget (not counting money raised for programs) that stood at $37.4 million for the year ending in June 2009 is expected to be slashed by $10 million in the current year.

A few rounds of layoffs have reduced the staff at KCET from 170 to 132. Jerome said three vice presidents have been cut in the last two years, leaving a dozen at that rank or above. In 2007, the last time a public report was filed on the nonprofit’s operations, eight executives earned around $200,000 or more. Jerome’s salary then was $388,000.

Potential buyers have been touring the studio property. A sale of the studios, which have been operating since 1912 (under various owners), could be a possible source of cash. The station’s leaders say they simply can’t continue business as usual.