EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published Nov. 6, 1996, in sister publication Eastsideweek, which later merged with Seattle Weekly. Mark D. Fefer today is

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What's Wrong with Channel 9?

Big ambitions, expanding overhead, shrinking local programming . . . does Channel 9 know what it's doing?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published Nov. 6, 1996, in sister publication Eastsideweek, which later merged with Seattle Weekly. Mark D. Fefer today is Seattle Weekly's arts and culture editor.

If you turned on your television last Tuesday eveningelection nightyou saw plenty of local election coverage on commercial TV, from KOMO, KING, KSTW, as well as KIRO. One place you did not find any local coverage of the election was on our community-funded public television station, KCTS. While in the past Channel 9 has broadcast a panel of local pundits discussing the outcome of local races, this year the station simply picked up the national PBS feed, adding only a voiceless, graphical display of local results to the bottom of the TV screen.

Its a small point, perhaps not even an important one. But to some station observers, the lack of any election coverage points to a larger question: To what degree is KCTS living up to the Community Television that is a part of its name? In the eyes of many people who are close to the station, KCTS is forsaking its mandate of providing locally oriented, public service programs, in favor of a much grander quest for big-time productions that can be sold to cable TV networks and foreign distributors. These KCTS critics, who include a number of long-time employees, feel the station has lost its core values and has become more concerned with selling videotapes and chasing cutting-edge technology than in providing worthwhile, community-based programming. And its of no small significance that KCTS is, as a matter of fact, planning to change its name.

Whether or not KCTS is indeed slighting local shows, there is little doubt the station is headed in new directions, some of which make station loyalists uncomfortable. Channel 9 is preparing itself for a new broadcast world in which the expanding range of media choices makes the stations claim to viewership more tenuous. At the same time, KCTS executives believe that the communications revolution will open up many more potential outlets for what they have to offer. Once a slow and preachy pedagogue, now Channel 9, not unlike Microsoft, looks to become a universal supplier of content for the emerging digital age. The station is trying to be forward-thinking on the hardware side as well: it made an early embrace of high-definition TV and is now racing to test out digital broadcast capability. But these lustrous ambitions have caused resentment as well as foreboding among some people affiliated with the station, who are uncertain just where KCTS is heading and concerned about managements ability to get them there.

The turmoil at KCTS is not unique, but reflects stresses and shifts being felt everywhere in public television today. PBS faces competitive changes that could render it irrelevant. The ascent of cable, for one, has fractured the television audience and given rise to new commercial networks like A&E and the History channel, which offer educational and cultural fare similar to whats on PBS. The future development of digital television may cause yet more proliferation of stations, perhaps even enabling the Three Tenors to have a network all their own. (No more having to share the spotlight with John Tesh.) At the same time, the Internet, as it evolves, also threatens to steal away viewers, especially those who are looking for distance learning or childrens educational fare. In the meantime, corporate donors have been cutting back their support of public television, while Congress has, at times, been downright hostile. This gathering of forces has caused many stations in the PBS system to start looking for new ways to define themselves, new ways to market their product, and, most importantly, new ways to bring in cash. And KCTS is scrambling as hard as any of them.

Theres reason to scramble. According to numbers released last month, KCTS ended its fiscal year in June with a deficit of more than $1 million. That means over the course of the year, the station spent $1 million more than it brought ina big no-no in the nonprofit world. Grants and other production underwriting from corporations and foundations were off by 22 percent from 1995. Subscriber income was up by only 1.4 percent.

In a quest for fresh sources of revenue KCTS has drawn on such predictable devices as the Channel 9 store in Seattles Rainier Square, as well as more innovative strategies such as a joint venture with Australian commercial television and the creation of two documentaries for the Discovery Channel. The station has also hatched a lucrative line of aerial photography videos, known as the Over seriesOver Washington, Over California, Over St. Louis, etc. etc. Theres even an Over Philadelphia (and how better to see it?). These lush, touristy travelogsshot by helicopter and accompanied by maximal stirring music, with minimal intellectual complexityhave been an attractive investment for corporate underwriters, as well as for public TV stations around the country, which broadcast the shows at pledge time and use the videotape versions as a premium.

But critics of the station are concerned that as KCTS chases these more glamorous, and potentially profitable, opportunities, it is neglecting serious local productions that might better serve Channel 9s immediate community. The flash point for some observers was the fate of Friday, a weekly public affairs show hosted by Barry Mitzman. KCTS executives are always quick to mention the show as an example of their commitment to local issues. But this fall the station chopped the hour-long program down by half. Friday was stripped of its prepared tape pieces and now is limited to a 30-minute in-studio roundtable between Mitzman and some guest journalists (who come cheap!). The shows producer, Lisa Smith, who is also Mitzmans wife, has since quit the station.

Beyond Friday, many people connected with Channel 9 have come to believe that making money is the pre-eminent concern of KCTS management, to the exclusion of other values. Theyll go Over anything that somebody is willing to pay them for, says one former KCTS producer, who, like most people interviewed for this story, continues to work in the close world of TV documentary production and so did not want her name used. Producers both inside and outside the station suggest that these days KCTS weighs potential projects less on their merit, or the degree to which they might further the aims of public television, and more on their potential for generating ancillary income, through video sales, the licensing of broadcast rights, and so on. Shows with a strong aftermarket potentialthe ones that make for an attractive coffee-table book, or that can be re-broadcast in many other marketsare apt to receive preference over public affairs programming that may not have much appeal beyond a local core audience. The station has, for instance, produced a seemingly endless line of cooking shows (with more on the way), which, in addition to being popular, yield a bounty of associated product offerings, from aprons to cookbooks. Staffers have come to refer to the Channel 9 programming scheme as overcooked.

It should be noted that this philosophy is right in line with what the Public Broadcasting Service has been promoting at the national level. On the PBS Web site, for example, you can find consultants exhorting member stations to focus more on earning money, ࠬa Smith Barney, rather than soliciting donations. PBS itself has been forming alliances with companies such as MCI and Readers Digest, with the express purpose of developing shows that can be converted into books, videos, CD-ROMs, etc. and sold by the Readers Digest direct-mail operation. Echoing this theme, KCTS president Burnhill Clark proudly remarked in a Seattle Times story last year that everything we do now has more than just a television component.

The success of some of these efforts is hard to argue with. The station aired its most recent creation, Over Beautiful British Columbia, two weeks ago and collected $150,000 in viewer pledges, according to Channel 9s chief operating officer, Walter Parsons. He says projects like the Over series help to generate money for the station that can be plowed back into new productions. Rolling an Over costs between $300,000 and $500,000, and Parsons says that, with the exception of Over Florida, each production was fully paid for at the time it was finished. Any income the station earns after that is gravy.

However, production costs are often paid off by arranging for an advance on video sales, which means youve already eaten the gravy before you try to pour it.

And the marketing-driven formula doesnt always work. The attempt to push a 1996 video version of the popular Northwest Best Places guidebook, for example, fell flat. This year the station had to write off more than $300,000 worth of unsold books, videos, and other consumer items that had piled up in inventory. Even with a smash like Bill Nye the Science Guy, the station hasnt necessarily reaped a windfall. KCTS produces the show with Disneys Buena Vista unit, and while the station has a right to a share of any ancillary income, Parsons says so far it hasnt been a huge number. He adds, Hollywood has interesting ways of accounting for things.

Of course, even profitable projects are soaking up station resources that might have been directed elsewhere. And its not clear whether the success of the over cooked menu has made KCTS any more able to afford the brainier fare. In fact, producers who do work for the station, either on staff or as independents, say that KCTS has become less eager to put up its own cash to fund documentaries. Instead, the station prefers that every show be able to pay its own way by finding some outside source of funding (an effort that the station will assist in). Walter Parsons says the station is no less willing to put up money but concedes it is somewhat less able. He points to the slow growth in subscriber income, the stations primary source of unrestricted funds, as the culprit.

Ultimately, the moral question for Channel 9, and PBS in general, is this: If prime-time programming choices are driven by the need to maximize income, then in what way does public television differ any more from the commercial stations that surround it? Where does the difference lie between serving your audience and pandering to it? The lines separating public and commercial TV have already become much blurrier elsewhere. PBS stations in the top five marketsincluding New York, Chicago, and San Francisco—have all begun allowing 30-second commericals (albeit strictly soft-sell). KCTS president Burnie Clark says he will not take that step because viewers would object.

Notwithstanding the grumblings from present and former staffers, Channel 9s vice president of production, Elizabeth Brock, maintains that the station is extremely dedicated to preserving its localism. She notes, for example, that the station has resisted PBS pressure to air certain national shows at a uniform time, saying, We have a longstanding commitment to local scheduling.

True, KCTS studios were silent on election night. But the previous week Channel 9 presented another one of its Ask the Governor t괥-୴괥s with Mike Lowry, which was arguably a more valuable use of station resources than having someone read election returns with instant analysis. In addition to that quarterly offering, and the shortened Friday, KCTS has other locally focused series, such as Serious Money (a weekly half-hour business report) and True Colors (an occasional program on diversity issues that is also shown on KOMO).

Brock says these presentations receive a substantial amount of funding from the station. In reality, that support is less in the form of cash money than in the use of studio time, personnel, and equipmenttrue costs, but ones the station would for the most part incur regardless. All three series receive financial backing from funding sources outside Channel 9.

For a station with a $24 million budget, that local lineup may not be terribly impressive. But it does compare favorably with what other public stations in the country are mustering. The stations that devote a significant amount of airtime to community issues are typically those that receive a lot of money from state governments, which KCTS does not. Moreover, a look at the KCTS production pipeline suggests the station is developing a fair number of productions with some regional interest, such as a documentary about local foster care and a series on Western writers from the stations grande dame of documentarians, Jean Walkinshaw. Plenty of other shows in the works have no particular connection to the Northwest. One titled Gardens of North America (a lush and colorful video tour of US regional gardens) is being developed for cables Home and Garden Channel. The station is also looking to repeat its Bill Nye success with another science series for kids. Not all of these projects will end up on PBS, but they will certainly be available to local viewers, for free, on Channel 9.

Whats happening at KCTS may not be so much a rejection of local programming as it is an embrace of outsourcing. The station clearly intends to farm out more of its production duties to freelancers, while thinning its full-time production staff. For example, the two documentaries that KCTS developed for the Discovery Channel earlier this year were largely the work of outside contractors, overseen by executive producers at the station. Production chief Brock confirms that she expects the station to be doing even less production work in-house five years from now. In this, the nonprofit station is simply following the lead of corporate America. And for documentary filmmaking, where there can be a lot of waiting around for funding to come in, it may not be such a bad idea.

On the halving of Friday, Brock says it was designed to free up resources for some other local projects we wanted to do. Specifically, Brock says the station is planning to introduce an on-air host in January. Three nights a week, a live, in-studio TV personality will appear during the five-minute breaks between prime-time shows. At the end of Frontline, for instance, the host might come on and connect the episode youve just seen with local issues. The long sequence of promos that currently fill up the time between programs will now be done in more condensed form, says Brock. The host will say, Look whats coming up.

The live announcer concept, which has been deployed in other PBS cities, is designed to make the viewer feel more personally connected to the station. Getting more in touch with its audience is clearly a priority at KCTS, but not for warm and fuzzy reasons. When asked in an interview about his strategic direction for the station, Burnie Clark says his top priority right now is to know more about our customers and to catalog that information in a useful way. Right now, he says, a volunteer might come in to handle the phones during a fund drive, and station officials would be unaware that she has a job at a foundation. Or someone might call in with a pledge, and the station wouldnt know whether that callers employer matches donations. We have no way of making that connection, Clark says. Clark aims to put together a database that will allow Channel 9 to have all that information centralized and interconnected. The stated purpose, of course, is to better serve our customers. The obvious objective, however, is to more efficiently put the touch on every individual who crosses the stations path.

The need to wring more dollars out of its present pool of pockets is manifest for KCTS. The station gets relatively little money from the federal government (just 7 percent of the stations $24 million budget). But more than 40 percent of its revenue comes from subscribers, and their giving has gone flat. Despite the seemingly endless hours of on-air nagging, KCTS increased its number of subscribers last fiscal year by just 200 people. Clark says the station has hit a saturation point in terms of recruiting new members.

Bill Nye, the stations cash-cow guy, has been generating several million dollars a year in production money for the station, with 18 percent of those funds captured to pay for KCTS overhead. But the station hasnt yet come to terms with Disney for a new season.

At the same time, what the station spends just to stay afloat appears to be ballooning. The share of the stations budget devoted to so-called support servicesi.e., fund raising and general overheadhas climbed in the last two years from a little more than one-quarter to now just over one-third.

Making sense of Channel 9 finances, however, is never easy. And the station does not exactly go out of its way to clarify the numbers. For example, the explanation for Channel 9s $1 million deficit in fiscal 96 seems shaky, to say the least. The KCTS annual report attributes part of the deficit to required accounting changes. But in fact, according to the stations own treasurer, KCTS board member James Costello, those accounting changes worked in favor of the station, not against it. The rule changes pertain to the recognition of incomemore specifically, a new requirement that the station book grant money as it is received rather than as it is spent. Were it not for these changes in federal accounting policy, which went into effect this year, KCTS actually would have been in the hole by some $300,000 more.

The annual report also blames a so-called funding shift for the 96 shortfall. What this apparently means is that certain productions were not completed on schedule, and therefore the grant money to pay for them did not arrive, as planned, by the end of the fiscal year. The annual report says that such a funding shift often happens for multiyear, multipart series. But, in fact, the bulk of the shortfall arose from one three-hour production called The Art of Magic, which ran into a major production snafu earlier this year. In July, KCTS booted the local independent producers who were putting the show together. That team has since filed a lawsuit against the station, protesting their dismissal and alleging that Elizabeth Brock mismanaged the project.

Meanwhile, the station has also been pouring a great deal of money into an elaborate, multicontinent documentary about Dale Chihuly. This is the second time KCTS has done a production about the much-celebrated glass artist. The first show was done locally. This time a KCTS crew is tracking the artist at work across Mexico, Ireland, Finland, and Italy. Walter Parsons says the project has a budget of $500,000 and that two-thirds of that money has been raised. Asked whether the Chihuly venture contributed to the deficit, Parsons replied, Not really. Given Chihulys international reputation, Parsons says KCTS expects to be able to sell broadcast rights all over the world. Still, coming at a time of layoffs and program cuts, the globe-trotting, glass-blowing extravaganza sticks in the craw of some staffers.

Part of the reason the Chihuly special is so expensive is because the station is using its much-touted HDTV equipment. HDTV has been a flag-waving venture for KCTS. About a half-dozen of the Over productions were shot in this high-definition format, which allows for roughly twice the resolution as we see on ordinary TV. Thats because there are twice as many lines of pixels forming the image. HDTV provides the same visual clarity and richness as you get from a big-screen movie.

KCTS proudly informs people that it is the only TV station in North America that owns HDTV equipment. But that may be because no other TV station in North America is interested in high-definition programming that can only be viewed and appreciated in the stations own lobby. No one at home has the kind of television necessary to see the stations souped-up high-definition programming because the TVs dont yet exist in this country to display the format, nor is there any way to transmit it. Channel 9 has to down-convert all its HDTV programs to the plain old, lower-resolution TV standard, known as NTSC, anytime it wants to broadcast the shows to North American viewers. The image is still noticeably superior, but nothing like what visitors see from the big HDTV monitor at KCTS headquarters.

Another reason why KCTS may be the only station in North America to own HDTV equipment is because the gear it has purchased is a Japanese analog technology that the broadcast industry in this country has already chosen to bypass. The era of advanced television is expected to be all-digitalboth the content and the means of transmission will be in the form of 1s and 0s. None of the HDTV programming that KCTS has created can be broadcast via digital TV without first being converted into digital form, a conversion that the station itself is not equipped to do. However, Burnie Clark says that Sony, the stations supplier, will provide that service for free, as needed.

Clark also believes that the HDTV material his station has created over the last couple of years will have value once digital television is up and running. There will be an emerging market for HDTV shows, he says, since only material created with that resolution will be able to take full advantage of the digital TV capability. But other industry professionals disagree with that assessment. If youre trying to create program material in high-def for any future format that might come to bear, that already existsits called film, says one local TV producer.

Indeed it is perhaps some measure of the singularity of Channel 9s belief in the value of HDTV material that no one else seems to be clamoring to use the stations equipment. At the time KCTS purchased the system in 1994, Burnie Clark said both publicly and to station staff that the station intended to cover its investment by renting out the rare equipment to production houses and other interested users. But that did not happen except in a few isolated instances. Walter Parsons says that a couple of Japanese firms took the gear along to the Atlanta Olympics, but weve been mostly using it ourselves. Clark now contends that money from the Over series has gone to pay off the $500,000 HDTV investment and has done so fully.

The station is now turning its attention to digital TV. For some time Clark has expressed the conviction that digital TV is going to replace todays system and Channel 9 is about to take an early leap into the action. The station recently received a license from the FCC to build an experimental transmitter on Capitol Hill in Seattle in order to test digital signals. (These will be bits of data captured by specially equipped receivers, not actual programs.) KOMO has announced that it would like to do the same.

But most broadcasters in the commercial world have approached the new technology with some reluctance. They like the idea that digital transmission will allow them to broadcast as many as four streams of content over airwaves that could previously handle only one. But they are less inclined to embrace a new, high-definition standard for content that would require them to replace all the hardware they own. Many in the industry have also expressed skepticism about consumers willingness to shell out $1,000 or more for a set that can handle the high resolution.

Its not readily apparent why KCTS should be devoting its energies now to the new technology. At a recent conference of public TV stations, Clark declared, In order to remain competitive in this rapidly changing digital environment, we must act quickly and decisively. We have no other choice, unless we want to become obsolete. Yet if theres anything that has not been occurring rapidly, it is the movement of conventional broadcast TV to digital, a transition that has been studied and argued about by both industry and government for the better part of a decade now. The FCC has still not decided on a standard for digital transmission and recently delayed a decision yet again to entertain concerns from Microsoft and other computer giants. The transition to digital television could still take a decade or more. That makes it difficult to understand why KCTS should be out in front, especially since its preteen and senior-age viewers dont tend to be the early adopters of new technology.

With its ability to compress data, digital technology promises to further fragment the media world. The airwaves will open up to many more streams of information and bandwidth will continue to expand everywhere, thereby driving up demand for more stuff to send to consumers down these pipes. Recognizing this, KCTS president Clark is now aiming to make his organization into one that is identified less with some particular spot on the TV dial, and more as an all-around originator of content, wherever that might be found. The creation of content is one of our special strengths, says Clark. We want to be creators of that content, not just for our screens, but for others around the world.

Out of this philosophy arises the quest for a new name. As Elizabeth Brock explains, the station wanted something that would be more memorable and would work for KCTS productions wherever they appeared, whether on the air, online, or via cable. We had research done that told us KCTS wasnt doing it, she says. Channel 9 presents a problem as well. Clark notes that in the coming world of digital television, stations may no longer retain their accustomed places on the broadcast spectrum, so that the channel numbers we are familiar with may have to be relearned. Unfortunately, he says, Channel 9 is the name that viewers associate most strongly with the station. For all these reasons, the station resolved it needed to be called something else and went seeking a new brand name.

However, after an elaborate, year-long research effort, the station came away with a name that was ultimately deemed unusable. Engaging a local marketing identity firm, KCTS evaluated some 450 names, and tested six of them extensively, according to Clark. Focus groups were convened in Portland, Spokane (where KCTS has a separate station), and Vancouver, BC (where many KCTS viewers live). The name that won out was the international-sounding Via, which KCTS insiders say came complete with European-style graphics. Unfortunately, it was only at that point that the station began to uncover the potential trademark violations presented by such a name and discovered there were many. Theres the huge entertainment conglomerate Viacom for starters. And in Europe, We found there were a lot of related names, says Clark. So, after $100,000 worth of effort, Via came to naught. The station is now preparing to select another marketing firm to help it start the process over again. Were not under great pressure to get this name, Clark says. But he hopes to introduce one soon so it will achieve some consumer awareness by the time digital TV arrives.

To KCTS admirers, the national and international ambitions of the station are something to be celebrated, even with such missteps. Greg Palmer, the former KING TV reporter and film critic who is working on a major project with the station, reflects that at least theyre trying to be a player. There are so few PBS stations trying to do that. Palmer is following up an American Masters program he did two years ago on the subject of death with another two-hour program about the history of vaudeville, co-produced again with KCTS. He says that whatever the stations faults, Channel 9 is taking a chance, saying, Yeah, we want to create national programming and were taking a financial risk to do that. Thats so much better than those big fat stations filled with educational bureaucrats who do nothing.

Other Nineites, such as Friday host Barry Mitzman, would like to see KCTS bring more of that kind of ambition to the work in its own backyard. Mitzman believes people around here are just starved, ravenous, for serious, thoughtful journalism on TV. They value it and would be willing to support a station that provided it. But its tough to do with such limited resources. And certainly if every PBS station chooses to become a player in the global market for content, there wont be much reason anymore for the system of local stations that was originally a major part of the public television mandate.

It remains unclear just what Channel 9 believes it can offer the waiting world. Elizabeth Brock says the station is currently at work trying to develop a signature series, one that can serve as the stations flagship production. Brock says it will stand out, identify us as to who we are and what we stand for. But for now, the KCTS signature series exists largely as an aspiration. This years budget contains no money for the project.

mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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