At KCET, spirits are high as the nation’s largest independent public station reunites with its PBS family — and reinforces its commitment to community, diversity and innovation.
The story has all the elements of a classic TV drama.
There's the shocking breakup that ends a long and seemingly happy relationship. That trauma leads to a bumpy coming-of-age experience. Then, with lessons learned, there's a heartwarming reunion. However, this particular tale isn't something you'd see on TV. Rather, it's about TV. Namely, the nation's largest independent public television station — KCET.
The channel's current saga began in 2010, when a financial dispute prompted KCET to announce the end of its 40-year partnership with the Public Broadcasting System. That was followed by seven years of forging its own path, which included joining forces in 2012 with digital broadcaster Link TV and rebranding as KCETLink.
Then, this past spring, events came full circle when KCET opted to return to its roots and merged with PBS SoCal/KOCE to become the flagship PBS member station for greater Los Angeles and southern California.
A happy ending? For Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCETLink, it's more like the start of an even more successful sequel. "Being an independent television station forced us to rethink the way we reach our audience, the type of content we produce and the models in which they are produced," he explains. "We had to figure out how to bridge the digital and broadcast gap, and find new ways to connect and engage with audiences."
That's a tall order given the current industry move toward streaming services and online networks. Reinvigorating a public television station might seem as wise as, say, investing in a Blockbuster store. Still, Andrew Russell, president and CEO of PBS SoCal, is bullish on the new relationship with KCETLink; its long-standing, localized approach to programming, he maintains, fits perfectly with the personalized appeal of online and streaming programming.
"We plan to build a center for public media innovation for content, distribution and engagement," Russell says. "We think there is a great potential for public media in the digital space, where we know public media viewers of all ages are consuming media. This merger will give us greater capacity to create and deliver trusted, high-quality storytelling to help meet our region's media needs."
When the union is completed — upon regulatory approvals — there will be four PBS SoCal/KOCE channels (PBS SoCal 1, 2, World and Kids) and three KCET channels (KCET, NHK World and KCETLink) broadcasting in southern California, with Link TV programming still available via DirecTV and Dish.
"Viewers will have more opportunities to see all our content," Russell vows, "including their favorite PBS programs." As for new series, plans for those are being kept under wraps as details of the partnership are worked out.
Whatever comes along, Devis is confident KCETLink is prepared for the future because of its past. When KCET split from PBS eight years ago, he recalls, the industry "thought it was either something super courageous or the craziest thing we could possibly do."
At the time, the station had only two shows to call its own, SoCal Connected and a talk show with host Roy Firestone. Today, Devis says, KCETLink "has 15 shows in production and one of the largest social media followings in the public media system." Those series include The Migrant Kitchen, City Rising and Lost LA, which have been so well received that KCETLink recently received 24 nominations for the 70th Los Angeles Emmy Awards, more than any other L.A. broadcaster.
Buoyed by this success, KCETLink is now furthering its reach, Devis says, by "embracing collaboration and partnerships with cultural institutions in Los Angeles, as well as digital networks such as Tastemade, Life & Thyme and others."
Another key joint venture came in 2017, when KCETLink outsourced all broadcast origination, master control and technical services at its Burbank-based, state-of-the-art production facility to The Switch, a New York–based provider of customer-controlled video switching services.
The 24,700 square-foot facility features everything from a green screen stage equipped with robotic cameras to a traditional stage outfitted with HD cameras and LED lighting to 15 editing bays.
KCETLink's alliance with The Switch, Devis explains, reflects "the seismic changes" in broadcasting and "it couldn't be a better partnership. It frees us up a bit more in terms of finances so we can actually generate more content while giving them full capacity to use the technology we have. It's a win-win." And ultimately, Russell believes, content will be the key to making the KCET–PBS family reunion a happy one.
"Fifty years ago, a surge of innovation and inspiration created public television as we know it," he says. "Now is exactly the right moment to marry the core strengths of each of our organizations — combining PBS SoCal's high-quality programming and community engagement with KCETLink's passion for smart, original content that captures the spirit of the region and its successful use of new technologies to reach diverse audiences."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018