Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Downton Abbey" Gives L.A.'s New Primary PBS Station a Boost

"Downton Abbey," season two
The "Downton Abbey" phenomenon couldn't have come at a better time for Southern California's new primary PBS station.

"Downton" ended its second season run on Sunday by attracting a 2.3 rating and 4 share in the Los Angeles market (ahead of KCAL, KTLA and KCOP among English stations), as well as 166,000 viewers here. The period drama has grown its L.A. audience every week of its run. For KOCE (Channel 50), the hit series has helped cement word around Southern California that it is the region's new PBS home.

It's only been a year since KOCE, which now refers to itself as "PBS SoCal," found itself suddenly thrust into the big leagues as the main PBS broadcaster in the nation's No. 2 TV market. A year later, KOCE is benefiting from "Downton" mania (the program even landed PBS' first TV Guide Magazine cover for a non-kids show in 32 years). And that also means the market's former PBS station, KCET -- which severed ties with PBS at the start of 2011 -- is missing out on the show that The Daily Beast says helped make PBS "cool" again.

"It came along at the right time," says KOCE president and general manager Mel Rogers. "L.A. is notoriously difficult for public TV and non-commercial broadcasters, but we feel really good about this."

Most regular PBS viewers in Southern California have already made the switch to KOCE, Rogers said. "The core viewer figured it out," he said. "The problem is once we get into other dayparts. There's still brand confusion, either people don't know where PBS is or don't understand what happened. People will call us 'KCET.'"

But for casual viewers who might not have been aware of the L.A. change, "Downton" was invaluable. "'Downton Abbey' enabled us to reach audiences that are not just the typical PBS audience, including younger people, and gave us a chance to establish ourselves as the area's PBS station," Rogers said.

Previously a secondary PBS station that focused on its Orange County audience, KOCE saw its ratings spike last year when it took over the region's primary PBS affiliation. "The day I really felt lucky was the day KCET decided to give up the most trusted media brand and walk away from it," Rogers said.

That meant KOCE now got first crack at airing signature PBS programs like "Masterpiece Classic," the 40-year TV franchise from WGBH-Boston that co-produces "Downton Abbey" and distributes it to PBS-member stations. "Downton" averaged at least a ratings point higher for KOCE than last year's major "Masterpiece" program, "Sherlock."

The switch happened so fast for KOCE that some things, including fundraising, have been slow going -- particularly given the rough economy, which has impacted charitable donations across the country. KOCE had been raising around $10 million annually, a number that is now up to $14 million -- but Rogers expects to see more of a spike in the future now that underwriters are starting to find the station. "These things build upon themselves. It takes time to build those relationships in L.A.," he said.

On-air pledges are way up, though: Even though KOCE has cut its pledge drive hours by 45%, the station has seen its pledge dollars jump by 52%, Rogers said. That will help cover KOCE's PBS dues, which have tripled since the station became L.A.'s primary affiliate.

KCET, of course, dumped PBS because of skyrocketing dues. Will KOCE suffer the same fate? "I personally think that the dues issue has been overstated," Rogers said. "Over the years it seemed like KCET was unhappy with PBS for one reason or another. We have a different view of PBS, we think they're terrific." Of course, Rogers would love to see PBS suspend KOCE's dues temporarily as it races to fulfill its new duty as L.A.'s PBS station, but he knows that won't happen. "PBS isn't a network, it's a membership organization, and members have to live by the rules," he said.

KOCE will also need more funds to add staff members (which currently number 50, up from 38 before the transition), and the station is also anxious to increase its presence in L.A. The station, which recently opened new facilities in Costa Mesa, has just inked an agreement with a commercial real estate firm to find an office here in L.A. "I hope we get it done this summer," Rogers said.

Already, KOCE is looking to cover more of Southern California, starting with its renamed signature series "SoCal Insider," which airs on Friday nights. The station is also close to partnering with New York's PBS station, WNET, on a new arts series. Rogers said he'd eventually like to produce L.A.-centric fare for the PBS service (something KCET tried for years to do, with mixed results).

KOCE is also still working with secondary PBS stations KVCR and KLCS in coordinating their program schedules -- but an early plan for all three stations to cross promote each other was tossed out after they realized that it was causing more brand confusion. Given KOCE's makeover as PBS SoCal, the attempt to also promote KVCR and KLCS "was too much for the public to absorb," Rogers said. "It will take some time to establish our new name and make sure it's solidly in people's minds."

For its first major outdoor marketing campaign, KOCE bought bus ads -- in Spanish -- to promote its PBS Kids fare. That might seem like a strange first promo push, but Rogers said after the switch the station quickly realized that the Latino audience had not shown up.

"The Hispanic audience is always a strong viewer of PBS Kids content -- including some adults, as it's good for learning English," Rogers said. "We put our heads together with PBS, and they helped out with a little bit of money, to put together this campaign in Spanish. It appears to be working. Our kids audience grew 113% this year."

Rogers is also busy expanding KOCE's Orange County education initiative to all of Southern California, and rebranding it "PBS SoCal Education."

"If I had been smart enough to see this coming, I wouldn't have focused on Orange County all of these years," Rogers said. "But what KCET did had never happened before. I hope people will be patient with us."

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