KCET’s brave move

I just learned by Craig Smith that KCET, the flagship PBS TV station in Los Angeles, is “going rogue.” Specifically, Craig says, “KCET will be dropping its PBS affiliation at the end of the year. That means if you live in Santa Barbara and want to watch the PBS NewsHour, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose, Antiques Roadshow or even Sesame Street, you may be out of luck starting at the beginning of next year.”

KCET is a Los Angeles station that puts no signal at all into Santa Barbara (except though a translator on Gibraltar Peak). But it’s the nearest PBS affiliate and is therefore on the local cable system (Cox), thanks to must-carry rules.

Here’s the LA Times storyHere’s another one. Both rake KCET over the coals. They’re abandoning viewers, paying their general manager too much, yada yada.

As all those pieces point out, KCET isn’t the only source of PBS programming in the LA area. KOCE, licensed to Huntington Beach in Orange County, is another long-time PBS affiliate and promises to at least help pick up the slack. And it’s in a good position to do that. Where KOCE used to radiate from a local site in Orange County, it now also broadcasts from Mt. Wilson, which overlooks Los Angeles and is home to nearly all the area’s TV and FM stations. In fact, KOCE is actually putting out a signal that maxes at one million watts, while KCET is currently at 190,000 watts with a construction permit for 106,000 watts. This means that technically, at least, KOCE is now a bigger station. At 162,000 watts, so isKLCS, another PBS station in Los Angeles.

At least one of those others is sure to show up on cable systems in outlying areas such as Santa Barbara, bringing familiar shows to PBS audiences there. (The bihg question for KOCE is whether it can still be an Orange County station, and not morph into National/Southern California one.)

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 today 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.

[Later...] Please read John Proffitt’s comment below. He lays out a scenario so likely yet easily denied that it has the ring of prophesy. TV is still TV, and KCET and its competitors are all TV stations. The next digital transition for the likes of KCET will indeed give us more more kinds of Ken Burns. The one that follows will bring us whatever we bring ourselves. Yes, there will still be big heads and long tails, but the game won’t be a closed one, or assume a sphinctered distribution system (which TV still is—and will still be if everything still has to run through regulated BigCos). More in my own responses and others that follow in the comments.

For bonus links, check out what KETC (not a typo and no relation), the landmark PBS station in St. Louis has been up to lately. There is lots of co-thinking out loud, including this stuff, facilitated by Robert Paterson

(For some reason the text here keeps reverting to an earlier version, then back to a later one, each time I edit it. Very strange. In fact, I just discovered that half this post disappeared somehow. I just restored it from Google search cache. I hope.)

18 comments

  1. John Proffitt’s avatar

    Agreed that dumping PBS was a brave move. And agreed the future of all “stations” is either found in connecting with an audience in a unique and relevant way or not found at all (oblivion).

    Given the talent in the L.A. area for media, they have a shot at creating a unique service worthy of the community. But I fear the leaders and staff of KCET suffer from the same myopia that affects station staffs across the country, and it might be worse there than most stations.

    The problem? An absolute focus on “TV” and the legacy world that implies. Rest assured the teams are already aligning to take their piece of the millions saved by dumping PBS. They are dusting off ideas for TV shows they’ve always wanted to do. And they won’t give away these new shows to the community online. No, these special projects, created in the minds of people for whom broadcast TV — nay, Emmy-award-winning feature television programs — is the highest art from. “Ken Burns? Bah! We’ll show him!”

    This will be expensive television. It will be created by creatives who have visions. It will not be community-focused or derived. No Flip cams allowed. No everyday people permitted.

    KCET will burst with creative new works for the next 2 years. Everyone will herald them for their ingenuity and their bravery for leaving the PBS camp. Then it will slowly decline. The excitement will pass. The donations will slow. The cost of running a major transmitter will be too much to bear.

    KCET will slowly become a video production house for grant-funded film and commercial work where possible. The “station” will disappear in 5 years.

    But KCET will be the lucky one for going first. The rest of the PBS universe will struggle and will either be saved by Congressional action (not likely) or will collapse as local and national duke it out for dwindling attention and funding.

    The local solution is in acting in the community interest and operating at a smaller scale. It will be found in collaborating with community nonprofits, including nonprofit news outlets. There will be successes in these areas, and one day those organizations might network and share nationally through some remnant of the pubcasting system.

    The national solution is to create a small collection of pubTV “stations” fed directly to cable and satellite, to the web, to local outlets that still want to use transmitters. We’re partway there now. PBS simply needs to be replaced with a central corporation that doesn’t answer to the local stations. One way or another, some variation on this will happen.

    But Big Public Broadcasting TV from local over-the-air players? Already dead. It’ll just take a while longer to play out.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, John, for making a number of essential points. I just added a pointer to your comment at the end of the post.

    No doubt KCET will wish to become a great production and distribution house for professionally produced content it can sell through distribution and to its own viewers. I think that’s unavoidable. There is too much talent wanting to do too much of that kind of stuff—and this is The Industry, as they say in L.A.

    But so will a lot of other current and former PBS stations, and independent production houses. How big is the market for that? We don’t know yet, but we’ll find out. The Industry has the same problems as a whole, only their “stations” are movie theaters. The difference is that going to movies will last longer than watching TV. (And watching live theater will last longer than going to movies.)

    The two biggest X factors are … 1) How well Apple and other new intermediators can replace the cable model with something à la carte—over Big Cable’s own wires and waves; and 2) How well and fast that system gets replaced by the anybody-to-anybody model that was the Internet’s design in the first place.

  3. Terry Heaton’s avatar

    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 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.

  4. lrlee’s avatar

    We dumped DirecTV when the stations became digital. We watch KCET and all the other programs we want via antenna and we buy or rent what we cannot get on iTunes. We save money by avoiding buying 99% crap, and use it to own what we love. If KCET and it’s huge subscriber base could not make a viable financial model with PBS who can? KCET paid more than the three public stations combined according to Jerome. If PBS had agreed to less money, KCET would still have paid more than the other three stations combined. And I wonder if KCET/PBS would not be in this situation if everyone who watched KCET actually subscribed at some level.

  5. Teri Beaugez’s avatar

    This makes me very sad. Don’t we have enough trash tv, mindless reality BS, cheap, tacky, ratings-driven junk food for the rotting American brains? We need food for our brains, educational, informational sustenance, not more garbage-in, garbage-out.

    And what will happen to news on this station and others? I don’t know what happened to reporting FACTS and letting the people decide. I admire PBS at least trying to adhere to that idea. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to think, and I’m so freaking sick and tired of them trying, PBS Newshour is the only TV news I will watch! I wish the media would stop assuming we’re all stupid and dumbing things down, or worse, not even trying to investigate and report, but rather just repeating both sides’ talking points, opining, and wildly speculating us all into a coma. I don’t care what all these talking heads think, not even a little. Give me the facts, and I’ll decide for myself! Infotainment is killing this country. How can we be self-governed, when we’re ignorant, polarized red team/blue team cheerleaders?

  6. John Proffitt’s avatar

    Thanks for the return comment, Doc! We’re on the same page, it would seem.

    To have my name and Doc’s and Terry’s all in one place is pretty damn cool. I’m a big fan, gentlemen!

    But I will take issue with the Mobile DTV notion. As a friend put it yesterday on Twitter, Mobile DTV is to TV as HD Radio is to FM. Neat, but it has no following or real purpose. I could be wrong. But Qualcomm saw the light, finally.

  7. Terry Heaton’s avatar

    Thanks, John. I don’t think people will PAY for mobile broadcast. I think the fight is to get the manufacturers to include the chip in all handsets, but I think that’s doable. I wrote about Media Flo last week. I’d predicted long ago its demise and wasn’t surprised when Qualcomm pulled the lever on it. Right now, broadcasters are split about pay versus free. If they go pay, it’ll never work. If they go free, I think it’s a game-changer, especially for sports.

  8. Teri Beaugez’s avatar

    Censorship … real nice, lol.

  9. Rob Paterson’s avatar

    I don’t think that anyone else knows how hard this is than John.

    My own personal view is this – can a local station make enough money off content whether it makes it themselves or buys it from say PBS or someone else?

    I don’t think so because of the channel issues that Doc nails.

    My own bet – yet to be realized – is that a public TV station might indeed become the host of the “Local Cloud” where the community can connect with itself and do important and just fun things. This I think a community will pay for.

    The traditional content will be something that I subscribe to on Netflix etc and connect to on the web.

    This includes “radio”. I have not spoken to anyone at NPR for years but their actions speak to me. They have warned the stations for years that they will have to find a beter model than to get paid as the local distributor of NPR content. NPR’s push into mobile etc has shown a huge increase in listening by widening the choice of how we connect to the content.

    Back in 2005/6 all the leadership of Pub Radio spent 6 months pondering this – the ONE thing that they all agreed on was that the “listener” would want all content on their own terms. They wrote their own obituary then.

    It is the same with TV.

    So we are left with where is the new value for a local station? It surely cannot remain as being a reseller nor can it be a production house.

    But it can be the host of the local cloud. Now how best to do that is the struggle that KETC is going through. Not easy or a sure thing as John knows. But at least I think that KETC has the best question to struggle with.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I had a long comment that went pfft for some reason, so I’ll try again, this time making it short.

    I agree with John about mobile DTV. I’ve played around a lot with the EyeTV tuner on my laptop, which also comprises all we have of TV these days. It is now clear to me that ATSC (our standard for digital TV) was designed for fixed location use, and isn’t easy to get unless you’re within line-of-sight of the transmitter. Since Mt. Wilson stands a mile above Los Angeles, this is good news, at least in L.A.. But also check the actual directional transmissions of KCET, KOCE and KLCS, behind the links in my post. They’re bug splats. Scroll down at this link here to KCET’s construction permit for its return to UHF Channel 28. The signal maxima are toward mountainous back-country where nobody lives. The minima are toward the L.A. basin to the south. It makes no sense.

    In any case I’m amazed at how easily these signals are lost. Early last year I stayed in the Westin in downtown Atlanta, on about the 60th floor, on the west side. I got DTV signals from Alabama, Tennessee and western Georgia, but not from the towers only a mile east of the hotel. Signal strength was high, but signal quality was low. That’s what you get with physical obstructions. I haven’t tried DTV in a car, but maybe I’ll do that tomorrow when I’m in Salt Lake City. I’ll have line-of-sight to the transmitters on Farnsworth Peak. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

  11. John Proffitt’s avatar

    Doc — Mobile DTV is actually designed around mobility, so it takes into account line-of-sight problems, signal reflections and fluctuations and so forth. That’s why it’s screen dimensions (in pixels) are a fraction of even low-end SD programming. I think there’s error correction in the spec and buffering in the receivers by design. I could be wrong about that — but overall I know the Mobile DTV standard is designed around 60mph car driving reception.

    And I should say that Mobile DTV is *not* available on your EyeTV device. The standard is very new (it’s a subset of ATSC 2.0, I believe), and requires both a modified transmitter and a capable decoder — these are extremely rare right now, mostly limited to test devices.

    That said, you will always find more square miles covered with some degree of 3G signal (or 4G) than Mobile DTV in years to come. It’s a use-case problem.

    I think mobile live video usage will fall into three categories, only one of which is Mobile DTV relevant:

    [1] Live events (mostly sports) where seeing the action in real-time is more valuable than seeing it later. In most cases, however, if you know something will be live and want to see it live, you’ll be able to get yourself to a place to see it live on a TV screen via cable or satellite. So this is a tight niche.

    [2] Viewing video content (streamed “live,” but not necessarily live feed) that’s useful to you in a time-killing way. Entertaining yourself on line at the bank or on your lunch break or whatever. This is a minor usage primarily because there are SO MANY other options for killing time on mobile devices, games being the most obvious example.

    [3] Live video for real-time point-to-point communication. The video phone, if you will. Not sure how big this will be, but it will be live, it will be video.

    In EVERY ONE of these areas, the web — not broadcast TV — is already dominant. The notion that Mobile DTV can take this back (in an ad-supported model as Terry suggests) strikes me a deeply implausible. Consider the “MLB At Bat” app on iOS devices. That app presents live video from any televised MLB game anywhere for a fee. Baseball fans love it, and MLB keeps improving it. Given the IP controls that major sports networks want in order to gain direct revenue, the notion that they’d license stuff out to Mobile DTV operators is kinda laughable. They can make more money as the wholesaler AND retailer than they’ll ever make as wholesaler alone.

    Anyhoo… I can clearly go on at length. Suffice it to say I’m a big Mobile DTV doubter because we’ve already seen the future of video, live or recorded, and it’s the web for all but the biggest live events, which can be amply carried by major cable/satellite systems. Plus, I’ll bet you the multicasting issue for IP networks will be solved one day, IF market pressure rises high enough. But it’s hard to reach a market flashpoint in a rapidly expanding media universe.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    (On my way to the airport…) Thanks, John. That clarifies things a great deal. Now I get the mobile TV:TV::HD radio:radio analogy.

    So I won’t bother testing ATSC on the road in SLC then. :-)

  13. John smith’s avatar

    Ya it’s a really brave move by KCET.

  14. Matthew Egan’s avatar

    I have to echo what many have said here, that the move is a brave one but I can also understand the motivations. Our team at ImageFreedom.com has always provided web training for both national affiliate stations and public television stations and the politics of being attached to a national name are pretty intense.

    I can imagine many folks at KCET are scared, knowing there are no resources to share, but at the same time knowing that their successes are not just going to feed the failures of others in their network.

    A bold move, but I bet you one they’ll be glad they made.

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