A Very ‘Public’ Breakup

KCET proved the victim of its own outside fund-raising prowess, says KCET Board Chairman Gordon Bava—the more it raises, the higher its PBS dues—and has since Jan. 1 been going it alone, without a PBS affiliation or the $7 million in dues it paid in 2010 for the privilege, he says.

With the public broadcasting system under fire in Washington, including from just-introduced bills that would dismantle its government funding mechanism, Bava, whose day job is as a Los Angeles lawyer, talked to B&C’s John Eggerton about the impact of Washington’s threats to de-fund the system and what’s next for noncommercial TV, including his belief that the system is in need of a remake.

Why did KCET drop its PBS affiliation?
It was the result of a long process of examination and negotiation with PBS. But the bottom line is that a continuation of our membership at our dues level required by PBS we determined was unsustainable from a financial point of view, and was really an impediment to our basic mission to provide quality content that has some relevance to our local community.

Sounds like you think there is something wrong with the system?
The PBS system, to put it succinctly, is vulnerable. By its own reckoning, it has been losing money since 2003. It has been losing money at an increasing rate in recent years. In this era of budget cuts and eliminating government services and a reluctance to increase taxes, the viability of the system is in question.

According to CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting], in fiscal 2009 public TV lost about $262 million in nonfederal revenues. CPB estimates over five years ending in 2013, the nonfederal revenues will decrease by half a billion dollars.

Where is that money coming from? Not likely from the federal government. It certainly won’t come from state governments. A lot of the PBS affiliates are owned by state colleges and universities that are struggling.

So as a preventative measure, we certainly looked at that vulnerability and said, ‘Well, wait a minute, how much longer? Even if we could retain our membership with PBS on a sustainable basis, what guarantee is there that they are going to be around in three or four years?’

Do you think the noncom stations can survive if the government cuts the cord, as it were?
Some will, but I think that the system would be reduced by at least half. I think a lot of those stations would probably go out of business.

Are you concerned that if KCET, which is not the largest independent noncom, makes a go of it, you could become a posterchild for Republicans looking to dismantle the system?
We [made] our decision without any reference to political ideology. I assume politicians, being clever, will attempt to use whatever information or case studies they want for their own purposes.

We fervently hope, because we get some federal money, that Congress continues support of public television and public media, because the need is much greater than ever before, especially with local news. It is pretty frightening the lack of local news that is out there, and that the national networks cover in a typical local broadcast.

We think there is a void, and that is the need that the free market creates—a need like supporting the public library, a need that the public and the government could realistically and reasonably help fill.

Any chance you could return to the PBS fold?
That is certainly a possibility. We have not terminated our relationship with PBS, we have suspended it indefinitely. We aren’t sure PBS is willing to accept that distinction, but that is our express intention. So that when the dust settles and we see maybe in a couple of years what the future of PBS holds and its role will be, we certainly would be open to returning on a reasonable and sustainable basis.

Is there any message to those who might try to use you as an example of why they should get rid of federal funding?
After about 50 years of existence, any organization needs to be refreshed and restructured. Rather than just cut it out, it needs to be rethought and a new grand bargain, if you will, needs to be struck between the public media and the American people or Congress, which is the funder.

I think that if they get additional funding, it should be required to restructure. Rather than eliminate it, just like we did with the auto industry, if you want the American people’s funding, you need to remake yourself to become more relevant, more efficient, and more diverse in your source of content. That would be my message

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John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.