Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Our Modest KCET Proposal

The clock is ticking for KCET.

The Southern California public broadcaster is set to part ways with PBS at the end of the year – which, believe it or not, is now just two months away.

In the short run, KCET will have to rely on a lot of acquired programming to fill its schedule – including movies, foreign programming, and syndicated public broadcasting fare from the America’s Public Television distributor.

Get ready for an even heftier diet of Huell Howser and “Fawlty Towers.”

In the long run, KCET is promising much more local-based programming. It’s not going to be easy: Original programming costs money. And KCET, already struggling to make ends meet, is likely to lose more viewer support in the coming year as its PBS programming goes away.

But on the flip side, technology has made it easier to produce programming with high-quality production values on the cheap. And audiences now used to a steady diet of homemade Internet video and small smart phone screens are less picky than they used to be.

Local TV stations managed to produce plenty of cheap, homegrown programming from the 1950s right through to the beginning of the 1980s. The production values weren’t great, and viewers were mostly watching because, honestly, there wasn’t anything else on. But boomers remain nostalgic of that golden age of hyper-local programming, mostly because they felt an ownership with it. Those kids hosts and afternoon talk shows were produced in their own backyards.

Southern California isn’t exactly small town USA. But it’s better than that: It’s a lively, loud, diverse region that happens to also be home to Hollywood. Surely KCET can mine that world in a way no other local TV station has had the time, resources or interest to do.

But again, it’s not going to be cheap. And KCET will have to make strike some strategic partnerships around town to pull it off. The last time I talked to KCET general manager Al Jerome, he mentioned exploratory conversations he’s had with public radio stations KCRW and KPCC about partnerships. That’s a start. I assume he’s holding talks like that with entities all over town.

With all of this in mind, I’ve come up with a few programming ideas that KCET might want to consider in getting its local programming initiative off the ground. None of these ideas are overly ambitious – they’re actually doable, and can be done rather quickly. KCET doesn’t have the time – or resources – to pull off anything overly grand just yet anyway.

Some ideas:

KCET NOW: First and foremost, KCET needs a signature daily program – its own “TRL” or “Daily Show” or “Good Day L.A.” A place where newsmakers can come, debates can be had, L.A. can be featured. Here’s my idea: Partner up with The Grove and the Americana developer Rick Caruso to underwrite the show, which would be shot at one of the two shopping centers. Caruso, of course, has his eye on the L.A. mayoral race and could benefit from the chartiable touch of underwriting a KCET series (which, of course, would also show off his shopping properties). “KCET Now” would feature a small studio audience and might be considered a newsier version of KABC’s old “A.M. Los Angeles.”

LIVE FROM AMOEBA RECORDS: Another recent L.A. institution, Amoeba’s ongoing in-store concert series, mixed in with interviews and music news and recommendations from its staff could easily be cut into a weekly, hour-long program.

L.A. ON THE STREET: Remember E! Entertainment's "The Gossip Show"? It was a simple format: Gossip columnists, in their offices, recounting their most recent stories and scoops. Take that idea and apply it to L.A.'s top bloggers. Reps from L.A. Observed, LAist,, Curbed LA, etc. go on camera, perhaps even from the location they're writing about (Zach Behrens at City Hall?) to recount their latest stories. This gives KCET instant content, and gives bloggers a televised forum to promote their site.

LEFT, RIGHT AND CENTER ON TV: Since we’re mentioning Jerome’s desire to get into business with KCRW, here’s one place to start. KCRW’s weekly half-hour radio show featuring Arianna Huffington, Matt Miller, Tony Blankley and Robert Scheer attempts to tackle so much each week that debates are frequently cut off right when they get lively. My idea: After the quartet tapes their weekly radio show, flip on the camera and get them going for another half hour. And yes, I know most of the time the group is spread out and sometimes have to participate via phone… but that’s where the inexpensive use of Skype comes in.

GOOD FOOD ON TV: Since we’re already tapping KCRW for “Left Right and Center,” let’s do one more: Evan Kleiman’s “Good Food” has turned into quite a franchise that already stretches beyond the radio show. “Good Food” sponsors events, dinners, contests and more. Let’s combine some of that with video takes of Kleiman visiting SoCal restaurants – at least two a week. And perhaps even bring on one of Kleiman’s chef pals to spread the wealth.

AIR TALK ON TV: Let's not leave KPCC out of this. What if Larry Mantle hosted a weekly TV version of his daily radio interview show?

THE LOH DOWN ON SCIENCE: Another KPCC show that could turn into a regular TV program: Sandra Tsing Loh's "Loh Down on Science" features. Give Sandra a camera and send her off to Cal Tech and other locales to give us a weekly look at some of the cool things going on science-wise in Southern California.

FILM SCHOOL: Why let WTTW in Chicago own the public broadcasting film review space? Grab a round table, stick L.A.'s film critics around it and have them debate film. Why KCET doesn't already do this, I don't know.

HIGH SCHOOL QUIZ: Back in the early 1990s in Hawaii, our local Fox station aired a show called “Quizzard” – a locally produced quiz show that pit high schools against one another in a daily game show format. If a tiny Hawaii TV station can find enough sponsor support to mount a show like that, surely KCET can find a way. And there are more than enough high schools in Southern California to make this work – pit rival schools against each other, and you’ll generate some real interest. This is the land of the Academic Decathlon, after all.

TOWN HALL Time for the mayor, police chief, City Council president, the LAUSD superintendent, the L.A. Times editor or the newsmaker of the week to get into the hot seat and answer questions from local citizens. (Think of KPCC's "Ask the Chief" as inspiration.)

All of this sound crazy so far? Let me remind you: KCET does big business with Huell Howser, whose entire M.O. is to walk around California with a microphone and a cameraman. And yet, he’s such a quirky personality – and the places he visits are pretty interesting – that it works.

This is also just a smattering of thoughts. Add your show ideas below.

UPDATED: The only problem with posts like this is you keep coming up with new ideas after you hit "send."

A few more:

THE LOS LOBOS POWER HOUR: OK, Los Lobos: We're giving you an hour each week to stage a homegrown variety show shot in Boyle Heights or somewhere in East L.A. Get to it.

L.A. SHELTER: Partnered with Curbed L.A., we visit open houses and discover more about what's going on in SoCal real estate.

And talks should be going on now with L.A.-centric personalities, such as Gustavo Arellano ("Ask a Mexican"), L.A. mag's Chris Nichols, histo-tainer Charles Phoenix, cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, L.A.-based group Ozomatli, rocker/radio host/writer/performer Henry Rollins, and many more.

The draw: Your own show, the way you want to do it. No commercial concerns, and no interference.

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