Last month, public television stations across the country held their annual December pledge drives. The station that raised the most money? Recently troubled KCTS-TV in Seattle, reaping $2.2 million. That's $400,000 more than the usual pledge-drive king, WNET-TV in New York, and an amazing $860,000 more than KCTS brought in a year ago. It's baffling. The station has not significantly enhanced programming. In fact, in the wake of a long-simmering financial implosion that ousted CEO Burnill Clark in 2003, Channel 9 has sharply cut back on creating original work.
Bill Mohler, the CEO who replaced Clark a year and a half ago, considers the question in the station's Seattle Center headquarters. "I don't really know," he admits. Trying to devise an explanation, he comes up with a few suggestions. The station's programming during the pledge drive aptly targeted the usual affluent, over-50 set. The cash cow this time was the broadcast of André Rieu's latest concert. Rieu is a violinist known for his long tresses and upbeat, classical-light musicality. KCTS broadcast the concert 11 times over the 18-day pledge period and used it to offer a popular pledge "transaction," as Mohler puts it. Those who pledged $300 or more received a DVD of the broadcast plus two tickets to an upcoming concert.
More substantively, Mohler thinks, the public has a sense that "things are changing" at the station with regard to financial management and transparency. When Mohler took over in May 2003, the situation was dire. Trying to carry out Clark's vision of becoming a national production house, KCTS was mired in debt and seriously short of cash. "At one point in the summer of '03," Mohler recalls, "we were probably three or four days away from closing the doors. We couldn't make payroll." Board members came up with money for payroll, but it was a loan. "In desperation, we were looking at selling the building," he says.
Deep staff cuts and an anonymous $7 million loan last spring got the station out of hot water. KCTS used the money to repay board members and catch up, except for one deferred payment on rent owed Seattle Center. (The station owns its building but rents the land.) KCTS also paid off much of $4.5 million in back dues to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). The station is still paying $500,000 a year to PBS over three years to settle that account. For the first time in years, last summer KCTS ended a fiscal year in the black—with a surplus of almost $500,000. Continuing to cut costs, the station is about to vacate one of three floors of its headquarters, which it plans to lease, and is giving up a distribution warehouse on Lake Union.
Mohler has also made progress toward opening the station's previously top- secret ledgers. KCTS now puts annual audited financial statements on its Web site—a huge change from the Clark era, when reporters could only view statements on the premises and weren't allowed to make copies. Mohler also appears on the air during pledge drives to talk about the financial situation.
Not everyone is satisfied by these measures. Sturges Dorrance, a retired KING-TV manager, resigned from KCTS's advisory board in December after an 11-year tenure. He says he was frustrated that clear financial information was not available to the advisory board and by the station's failure to produce a promised accounting of a $3 million Program Fund, comprised of donations for the purpose of jump-starting national productions. Raised in the early 1990s and intended as a revolving fund, the money disappeared without donors knowing where it went. "Some of the basic things still need to be dealt with," Dorrance says. Mohler responds that he and Dorrance differed over the level of financial information appropriate for the advisory board, which the station head says is not charged with financial oversight. Mohler concedes, though, that the Program Fund review is late. "I met recently with Ernst & Young," Mohler says of the accounting firm handling the task, "and I said, 'This thing has to be completed by the end of the month.' It's ridiculous."
Judging by the phenomenally successful pledge drive, it appears that the general public is satisfied enough with KCTS's reforms. It certainly isn't new programming that's bringing in the dollars. By his own admission, Mohler's strength is "business management," not content. Previously serving as president of Bates Technical College in Tacoma, where he had oversight over the area's other public station, KBTC-TV, Mohler is a marked contrast to Clark, his predecessor, a creative visionary who couldn't afford his dreams and couldn't manage the consequences. Mohler has gotten the station's finances in order by chopping the production side of the house. He laid off most staffers in that area, except for those affiliated with two local public-affairs programs, KCTS Connects and Serious Money. "We've determined our core business," he says. That, he identifies strikingly, is "broadcast," not production.
Mohler says, though, that he wants to "grow this thing" and do it "with a local flavor." The station recently wrapped up an interesting 11-week series of locally produced documentaries. It was a cheap way of airing local programming, since independent producers had already made the films without KCTS funding. The station is seeking submissions for a second such series. So far, that's been the only evidence of the station's new local focus. For more ideas, Mohler says he's soon to meet with 25 to 30 local "movers and shakers," such as mayors, county executives, and CEOs—not exactly a creative or artsy circle.
At the same time, several projects launched by Clark are now finally finished and soon to be aired. They include Eyes of Nye, a follow-up series to the popular children's series Bill Nye the Science Guy. The new 13-week series, aimed at an adult audience, followed a tortuous road to completion, plagued by several changes of directors and internal doubts about its quality and target audience. While PBS has declined to pick up the series for its entire constituency, 82 stations have agreed so far to air it.
Will viewers notice the new shows? Will they care that KCTS isn't making such programs any more? The recent pledge-drive bounty seems to indicate that as long as folks can get mainline fare such as Frontline, Nova, and André Rieu, they're happy.