Layoffs at Seattle PBS station, KCTS 9, raise questions about its ability to create local programming.
SEATTLE’S PBS television station, KCTS 9, recently laid off 11 production staffers and canceled its only regularly scheduled program on local issues.
The cutbacks were not financially driven, Channel 9 says, but are part of a new “digital-first” approach. The station will focus on creating short videos to be posted online, with some broadcast later between programs.
This is a reversal from eight months ago, when a station news release was headlined “Current Affairs Programming Returns to KCTS 9.” Chief Executive Robert Dunlop promised “insightful, long-form reporting that can only be seen on public television.”
The station launched “In Close,” a slickly produced half-hour program that took on one big, serious topic each week: minimum wage, homelessness, police-community relations. Apparently the program was little-watched.
Ratings should not be the only measure of a current-affairs program, but “In Close” never had the time it takes to build an audience without a major marketing budget.
That task is especially difficult at KCTS because viewers are unaccustomed to looking to it for local current affairs. For more than a decade, the station has largely neglected community issues, even after it clawed its way back from insolvency bred of mismanagement.
Now, “In Close” is gone after 25 episodes. What the world needs instead, according to Dunlop, are more snippets of Internet video.
That’s certainly not something “that can only be seen on public television.”
Which raises a larger question: Is KCTS necessary? Given the station’s limited local program service, why is it deserving of the viewer support that it devotes vast amounts of airtime begging for?
To be clear, no one is suggesting that “Downton Abbey” fans (including me) should be denied our fix of Edwardian melodrama. PBS provides many excellent programs, some with large and loyal audiences.
And the issue is not whether public broadcasting deserves its federal subsidy. Congress appropriates about $445 million a year to support public TV and radio, less than it spends on aid to Uganda, for example. KCTS relies on government funding for less than 10 percent of its $19 million annual budget.
Most of its income is derived from selling “memberships” — a misleading term, in that small donors have no say in KCTS governance. Still, viewers give voluntarily. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that being able to perpetuate yourself is not the same as having a distinctive mission. KCTS is a tax-exempt organization licensed to use the public airwaves in the public interest. Our region deserves better.
Only a little more than half of KCTS spending is on program services. The rest goes for fundraising and administration.
That’s not necessarily because KCTS is especially wasteful. The decentralized system of individual stations scattered across the country, each with its own executives and fundraising apparatus, is inherently inefficient.
Inefficiency may be justified if it produces unique program services that meet the different needs of different communities. But what if stations basically just switch on a transmitter and point a dish at the PBS satellite feed?
Regional consolidation might save money that could be invested in programs. Many states, including Oregon and Idaho, have unified public-TV systems that produce more original content — often much more — than KCTS does.
Puget Sound has two independent public-TV stations. Tacoma’s KBTC broadcasts essentially the same program service as KCTS, except that it does manage to produce a weekly current-affairs series, “Northwest Now.” KBTC operates with a budget of around $5 million, about one-quarter that of KCTS.
Maybe KBTC could extend its signal by taking over the KCTS transmitter on Capitol Hill.
Channel 9 could then sell its allocation of broadcast spectrum in the auction the FCC is holding next year to free up more airwaves for mobile devices. KCTS could use its payout to endow a foundation for some greater purpose than the station serves now.
With a wider reach and economies of scale, KBTC could invest in creating more and better local content that managers might have the fortitude and vision not to kill off before it has a chance to succeed.