Watching other stations might help KCTS recover
Seattle Times television critic
Seattle's public-television station is in crisis: deep debt, secretive management, a lack of creative vision and frayed local ties.
But crisis also can foster reinvention and revival.
Across the country, public stations — from a $3.5 million college operation in blue-collar Flint, Mich., to a $45 million community-licensed station in affluent San Francisco — are negotiating tough times with active boards, involved communities and take-charge managers.
In 1995, San Francisco's KQED had a $5 million deficit burdening its $27 million budget.
Today, KQED is a star in the PBS constellation. It has a $45 million budget and a growing reputation for Bay Area-themed programs that the rest of the country also wants to see.
A look at KQED and other stations reveals a variety of turnaround strategies that may work for KCTS.
KCTS, whose president Burnie Clark just announced he will retire, does have good financial support. It pulls in more money than similarly rated stations in Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and St. Louis.
But financial security is only one ingredient. Station managers elsewhere point to three factors that are just as crucial: openness, programming and partnerships. These are the lifelines that sustain public TV's connection to viewers and supporters.
KCTS is a community-licensed station with a 14-member board whose members are appointed. Besides scrutinizing the station's finances, the board's other duty is to advocate the public interest.
Not everyone on the board sees it that way.
Asked to comment on KCTS in his role as a community representative, board member Hunter Simpson refused. "What I represent is the fact that I've given a lot of money to the station."
Indeed, the KCTS board is mostly made up of affluent business leaders and retirees. They may be invaluable as sources of money, but scarcely mirror the region's population.
Other public television station boards are larger and more diverse.
Chicago's community-licensed WTTW has a 55-person board. "It's the only way to get a cross-section of different talents, different interests, different demographics," says corporate communications vice president Joanie Bayhack.
KQED's 27-person board is elected by the station's viewing members. All of its meetings are open to the public. Adds station executive vice president John Boland, "We go into executive session only for personnel matters, not financial matters."
In St. Paul, Minn., Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) also is increasing its 23-person board to 30.
"I view them as a board with fiduciary and oversight responsibility for managing the public trust," says CEO Jim Pagliarini. "Bigger numbers get a broader swath of that public."
For troubled stations such as KCTS, managers say, the most important first step is openly discussing difficulties.
Donovan Reynolds is director of broadcasting for the University of Michigan and general manager of its public television station, WFUM-TV, based in Flint.
"A lot of PBS stations are run by older white guys who find it easier to cruise along, paper problems over and hope things won't collapse before they retire," says Reynolds. "I didn't want to be one of them."
Reynolds was recruited to WFUM in August 2001 after turning around the university's public radio station. Tiny WFUM was struggling with a deficit and Reynolds had to announce staff cuts.
"You have to acknowledge there's a problem," he says. "If we didn't balance our books and show we were good stewards of the money entrusted to us, we couldn't dig ourselves out."
Each PBS station has a core mission to deliver high-quality programs that reflect the uniqueness of its region.
For years, however, KCTS chased the potential payoff from getting programs aired nationally that had little to do with the region.
Chicago's WTTW has a budget of $46 million and easily could produce national programming. But a new CEO who arrived several years ago instead began boosting local shows.
Among them: "Chicago Tonight," a nightly one-hour magazine; "Artbeat Chicago," a weekly arts program; "Chicago Stories," a history anthology series; "Wild Chicago," a look at local characters and places; and "Check, Please," wherein four viewers are taped eating at a local restaurant and critiquing it.
WTTW's ratings are up 20 percent this season — more than any PBS station.
The strategy of San Francisco's KQED demonstrates that the conflict between national and local productions need not exist. The station's focus is on Northern California content first, then the size of its audience.
"Anything we produce has to be rationalized based on where are," says Boland.
Some productions are seen solely in the Bay Area, such as "Spark," a new weekly half-hour art series co-produced by the Bay Area Video Coalition.
Other shows air statewide, such as "California Connected," a weekly news program co-produced by KQED and other California public stations.
And still others do get seen nationally. KQED recently contributed the San Francisco Opera's "Merry Widow" and the San Francisco Ballet's "Othello" to "American Masters' " 30th-anniversary season.
A model for a downsized Seattle operation may be KAET-TV in Tempe, Ariz., which has a modest $8 million to $10 million annual budget.
"We are not in the business of national production," says station manager Beth Vershure. Instead, she lets PBS series like "Nova" and "Frontline" carry the national flag while KAET, licensed by Arizona State University, makes what Arizona viewers can't get elsewhere.
For 20 years, KAET has produced "Horizon," a nightly public-affairs show considered vital in state politics — and useful for cultivating relationships with lawmakers who control purse strings.
The station also regularly adds to a library of more than 100 shows tied to the Southwest. They range from the inevitable cooking series to a documentary on Barry Goldwater's photography.
For decades, public television has gotten by on a hodgepodge of viewer donations, philanthropic support, corporate underwriting and government subsidies.
Nowadays, station managers are thinking beyond these traditional sources to "new" sources under their very noses.
Even though WFUM is licensed by the University of Michigan, the Flint station once barely used its college ties.
"We needed to reconnect," says general manager Reynolds. WFUM has only a $3.5 million annual budget. Yet by partnering with the university's art museum, it is able to produce a documentary about the treasure of the Romanovs that will air nationally on PBS. Last year, the station recruited Michigan's art and architecture school for a series on urban sprawl that got six Emmy nominations.
Now, Reynolds is looking past the university gates for a way that all public stations in Michigan can survive.
"I encourage my fellow station managers to think about how we can share resources and stop wasteful duplication," says Reynolds. "There is no reason we shouldn't be working together cooperatively and on a scale to reduce costs."
Some PBS stations already have found synergy.
Arizona's KAET recently produced a show by bringing together public stations from the "Four Corners states" — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah — then dividing the fiscal, promotional and editorial duties among them.
Even PBS' big players — WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York and WETA in Washington, D.C. — are buddying up. Partly in response to financial setbacks, Twin Cities Public Television recently launched an initiative called The Minnesota Collaborative with local cultural and performing-arts organizations.
Station CEO Pagliarini describes the strategy.
"These organizations share the same educational mission as public TV," he says. "Many of them spend tens of millions of dollars on communications and publicity" — the kind of exposure that TPT's two public stations can offer. Seattle has an abundance of cultural and educational institutions with which KCTS could partner. The station could also pursue alliances with Tacoma's KBTC-TV or even Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Thursday, at a public meeting, the board will discuss setting its finances in order and replacing Clark.
Beyond that lies months of determining how KCTS can fulfill its directive to inform and inspire viewers — and become a dynamic television showcase for all the rich, diverse and quirky treasures found only in the Northwest.
Kay McFadden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8524.
Reporter Cheryl Phillips contributed to this story.