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KCET cuts cord to PBS network

KCET, for 40 years the key Los Angeles public broadcasting station, has plunged the city into a television crisis after announcing it will stop carrying PBS network programming effective Jan. 1, 2011. The move, which came after months of tense negotiations, left PBS shocked and now scrambling for a fix.

KCET, the first major market station to break with PBS, will become the nation’s largest independent public television station. “This is not a decision we made lightly,” said Al Jerome, the station’s president and chief executive, in a statement.

KCET’s action leaves Los Angeles viewers without a place to see “Sesame Street,” “NewsHour,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nova,” “Masterpiece” and “Frontline.” However, PBS president Paula Kerger told the “Los Angeles Times” that the network will find a replacement station for its programming and LA audiences shouldn’t worry.

However, with less than three months before their contract is up, PBS will have to move fast to find a replacement station. The most likely candidate is KOCE-TV, an Orange County affiliate that currently airs only 25 percent of PBS programming.

KCET, on the other hand, will have to assemble a slate of its own programming quickly, which may include news and documentaries from Japan, Canada and Hollywood producers. That, too, will be difficult in only three months.

KCET expects to remain a nonprofit enterprise mostly reliant on funds from viewers and corporate donors. It broke with PBS because it could not afford to pay member dues that rose 40 percent after KCET in 2005 won a series of grants from oil giant BP and other sources totaling $50 million for two series aimed at preschoolers. Those grants came with the stipulation the money could not be used for paying dues to PBS.

PBS has defended its dues structure as necessary to maintaining quality programming and has argued that KCET was asking for special treatment. Talks between KCET and PBS have continued over three years, going nowhere.

The move might end up being very painful for KCET and PBS, as well as viewers in the Los Angeles market. For KCET, the station loses a potent fundraising tool. For PBS, the breakup casts a cloud over the network’s future. Many analysts already question PBS’ relevance as a federally mandated broadcasting service in the era of multichannel television.

“PBS certainly does not play the essential role it once did in the nation’s media landscape,” Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University, told the “Los Angeles Times.” “For years, PBS provided things that couldn’t be had from the traditional networks.”

“Now, with cable outlets, not to mention the Internet, the public doesn’t rely on PBS for such fare,” he added. “Those multichannel entities are rooted in corporate vision, but they only need a niche audience to make a go of it these days. Not to mention that PBS has taken on some of the corporate vision itself, with lengthy, enhanced underwriting announcements, corporate partnerships, etc.”

Reaction from viewers to the KCET-PBS split has come fast and is mostly negative. “I will never watch again, nor give another penny,” said one commenter. “KCET has just committed suicide. RIP,” wrote another.

However, LA city council president Eric Garcetti said he’d like to see more local coverage on KCET as an independent station. “I hope they take some of the money they can save from this and pour it into good, locally focused broadcasting that’s in the public interest,” Garcetti told the “Times.” “LA still has millions of stories that go untold.”