KCET Goes Indie

Hosted by

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

If you only follow the brave new world of television and media a little bit, a local news nugget last week may have caught you by surprise.

KCET, the flagship public broadcasting station in Los Angeles, is leaving the PBS network.

That means iconic PBS programs like Sesame Street and NewsHour…and Masterpiece Theatre…will now have to find a new home.

If they're to be seen in the nation's second biggest metro area.

Actually, finding a new spot on the air…or in the cable TV lineup… might be the easiest part to figure out of the whole story.

There are PBS stations based in Orange County and at the LA School District that will be more than happy to grab the old KCET audience.

And the donations they used to send in to KCET.

The network has already put out the word that it will work closely to help those stations.

It's KCET whose future seems to be more up in the air.

Management says it was forced to choose the independence route because PBS wouldn't give the station a break on fees.

KCET took the step only after three years of negotiations didn't lead to a solution the station could live with.

That makes the announcement sound a bit like a high-stakes game of chicken. Like one side or the other is trying to call the other's bluff.

But if KCET means what it says…and really does intend to invent a new kind of TV station for Los Angeles…it could be pretty exciting.

A station truly devoted to local programming would be a radical departure from what we have now.

The commercial stations have never done it. They are all about selling ads.

Neither has the PBS version of KCET. It does a good job with SoCal Connected , and occasional local initiatives, but KCET has never seemed fully committed to truly engaging local shows.

Let alone to coming up with a full slate of them.

It's a risky course, at every level.

Once KCET's subscriber base finds out there's no more Elmo or Big Bird…and no Jim Lehrer…who knows how many of them will keep donating.

KCET's pledge breaks and fundraising pitches already had taken on a sense of urgency. The recession has struck deep at the ranks of corporate givers, and layoffs have taken a toll at the station.

We also don't know what kind of financial rewards are out there for a station that aggressively programs for a Southern California audience.

Or what kind of political and cultural strains will be exposed by a station that pushes the edges – as KCET will have to to build any credibility as an indie station.

More folksy talk by Huell Howser and old movies hosted by Sam Rubin of KTLA aren't going to fill the schedule or make anybody happy.

To be an independent local public station, KCET is going to have to make people mad. By adding views from across the political spectrum. Beyond the mainstream, which already gets plenty of media exposure.

Same for its treatment of social issues…and ethnic cultures. These are hot button topics that tend to make somebody angry, no matter which side you take.

LA's dwindling corporate culture hasn't shown much willingness to fund controversial programming that makes people angry.

So on this KCET experiment, the big questions all remain to be answered.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.