KCET’s bold brave move (gets them what?)

KCET logoLos Angeles PBS affiliate KCET announced this week that it is leaving the PBS fold to become an independent station. LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd noted that the station still plans on public support.

And so, after Jan. 1, 2011, KCET will present itself anew, as an independent community-supported station whose programming particulars exist so far mostly as empty phrases: “high quality professionally produced programming representing the genres our audience expects from us drawn from national and international sources,” “content acquired and produced specifically with our audience in mind,” an “exciting and challenging journey.” It is a “work in progress,” KCET Chief Executive Al Jerome posted on the station’s website, to be realized in concert “with the local creative community, which is world renown[ed] as the source of great entertainment.”

Whew. So KCET said goodbye to a four decade-old arrangement with PBS to continue to be a form of PBS without paying what it felt was exorbitant fees for association with a network. If this sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it’s one of the options facing every TV station in the U.S., because the shifting quid pro quo for network affiliation is one of the factors lowering margins for publicly traded broadcast companies.

Doc SearlsDoc Searls has been a long-time fan of broadcasting and has written extensively about how the model simply doesn’t work in today’s horizontally connected world. He’s also a part-time resident of Santa Barbara, so he’s familiar with the L. A. TV scene. His response to the KCET move is provocative and deserving of further distribution and comment here.

But the real story here is the death of TV as we knew it, and the birth of whatever follows.

Relatively few people actually watch TV from antennas any more. KCET, KOCE and KLCS are cable stations now. That means they’re just data streams with channel numbers, arriving at flat screens served by cable systems required to carry them.

What makes a TV station local is now content and culture, not transmitter location and power. In fact, a station won’t even need a “channel” or “channels” after the next digital transition is done. That’s the transition from cable to Internet, at the end of which all video will be either a data stream or a file transfer, as with a podcast.

All that keeps cable coherent is the continuing perception, substantiated only by combination of regulation and set-top box design, that “TV” still exists, and choices there are limited to “channels” and program schedules. All of those are anachronisms. Living fossils. And very doomed.

KCET bailed on PBS because it didn’t want to pay whatever it took to stay affiliated with that program source. This means KCET has some faith — or at least a good idea — that Whatever Comes Next will be good enough for lots of people to watch. If we’re lucky, what’s liberated will also be liberating.

I sure hope so. Dumping PBS was a brave move by KCET. They deserve congratulations for it.

The disruption to local television is the textbook “innovator’s dilemma” of Clayton Christensen. New technology and consumer behaviors are combining to undercut broadcasting’s core competency — the ability to reach large audiences for advertisers. Those audiences are shrinking, so the value proposition of even the name — broadcasting — faces a very difficult future. Despite this, research continues to tell us that people prefer television over any other form of media. The problem with this research, however, is that the definition of the word “television” has changed and, as Doc notes, it’s now essentially channels on a cable platform.

Google and Apple want to change even that by separating content from source. That’s because people watch programs today, not channels.

So KCET has its hands full and faces what a lot of other independent stations face each day. They’ve no doubt calculated that they’ll lose some fundraising but that it’ll be offset by the lack of paying for network affiliation. It’s an interesting and, as Doc says, “brave” move. I certainly wish them well, but unless and until media companies of all stripes learn how to attach a money-making mechanism to distributed content, it’s a losing battle.

The wild card, as I wrote again last week, is Mobile Digital Television (MDTV), and it’s why I remain bullish on broadcasting. Assuming broadcasters can agree that this will be a FREE service, it stands to put broadcast towers back on the map and back into relevancy. The question is what will they put there for programming? If it’s locally relevant, it’s a money tree for the station. If it’s network content, it’s still potentially a money tree, for the affiliation has to revert back to the old days, because the only way that content can get to the masses is through a local affiliate.

So, KCET, you have a real opportunity here, and it’s all in your hands. Recognize that people watch programs today, not channels, that mobile IS your future, whether it’s via the Internet or MDTV, that you don’t need fancy equipment and a cast of thousands to make good videos, and that the word “broadcasting” needs to be rethought in light of a distributed-video universe. Otherwise, the squeeze will continue and you’ve just bought yourself a little time on the way to the bottom.


  1. Goodbye Forever KCET Los Angeles

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