KCTS Disconnects

National production is shelved as the troubled PBS station lays off 30 percent of its staff.

FISCALLY TROUBLED public KCTS-TV this week is stepping back from producing national programming as the station makes deep staff cuts that will eliminate most of its creative talent. Channel 9 is cutting 30 positions from a staff of more than 100a central provision of a budget that reduces last years expenditures by $4 million and tries to turn around the stations long-running financial problems, which led to the ouster this spring of president and CEO Burnill Clark.

The cash crunch has become so extreme that several of the nonprofits board members have reached into their own pockets to come up with $385,000 for payroll in recent months. The station also has taken out a loan for $750,000, using grant money expected from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in November as collateral. Meanwhile, the station is talking with lenders about a possible mortgage on its Seattle Center headquarters. And, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, KCTS estimates a deficit of $2.8 million, although thats mostly due to a noncash depreciation charge.

KCTS wasnt to announce who will be asked to leave until Wednesday, Aug. 6. But as veteran producer Jean Walkinshaw says, the handwriting is on the wall when it comes to the production staff. We just cannot afford to carry production staff on our payroll, confirms chairman of the board Doug Beighle. He and Bill Mohler, an interim CEO brought in to replace Clark, describe KCTS as moving to a model of production more common to other stations around the countrya small production staff, possibly only a couple of people, and the hiring of producers on a contract basis as money is raised for new projects. Under that arrangement, production workers will be given a start date and an ending date, Mohler says.

He and Beighle maintain that production will not necessarily be scaled back, though the stations focus will change from producing national shows it can sell to other stations to producing shows for and about local people and issues. KCTSs lust for national standing alongside PBS powerhouses like WGBH-TV in Boston has been a longstanding complaint by some insiders, who feel that such ambition ate up resources while regional interests were ignored, all without providing promised results.

Were committed to the local productions were doing, Mohler says, a commitment evidenced by the promotion of Enrique Cerna, host of the local public-affairs show KCTS Connects, to the position of director of production. The list of local shows now produced by KCTS is shortthe weekly ones being KCTS Connects and the business program Serious Money. As valuable as those shows might be, theyre a small part of the usual production activity at KCTS. KCTS has not gotten its reputation on Connects, says Walkinshaw, who notes that the stations roots are in producing well-regarded documentaries. Walkinshaw wonders if the station will continue to do documentaries and profiles, but with local themes, a direction she would welcome.

Tossing out a few ideas of local programs KCTS might produce, Mohler seems to be thinking on a small scale. He talks about collaborating with Seattle Center to videotape ethnic celebrations there. He cites as a model a series of programs produced by KQED-TV in San Francisco about diverse local communities. Though produced for a local audience, he says, the programs were of such quality that they ended up running on other stations around the country, which is the way he thinks national programming ought to originate.

Mohler says, though, that hes waiting for a strategic planning session in the fall to flesh out the details of the new direction. In a departure from the past, he plans to open up the process to community members.

Clearly, the stations cost constraints will have a big impact on what KCTS does. Not only will the station have less in-house talent to draw on for generating new shows, it has determined that it will not air existing programs until underwriting is found. That means finished programs might literally sit on a shelf, awaiting interested underwriters. Programs in development that might have such a fate include Eyes of Nye, the adult-oriented follow-up to Science Guy Bill Nyes former kids series, and a program on Alaskas Inside Passage, based on a book by local author Jonathan Raban.

Depressing as this might seem to the creative staff, these measures might help fulfill the stations goal of rebuilding credibility with investors and donors by showing fiscal discipline. What might also help is a planned outside audit of how a $3 million special program fund was used. Donors to the fund were never given a report on spending, as promised, and some have wondered if at least part of the money was spent on overhead rather than programming. Donors will be given a report after the audit, according to Beighle.

The station might win back some credibility with its changes in leadership. Mohler has appointed new managers, including Cerna, and several board members are expected to leave, making way for new blood. Equally important, the station has lifted the veil of secrecy about its operations, posting on its Web site notice of board meetings and its nonprofit tax statement. Still, one cant help but wonder, when all these cuts are over, how much of the station will be left to rally around.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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