Tuesday, January 11, 2011

TV notes: KCET breaks away from PBS, Tribune debuts Antenna TV and other bits and pieces

Emmy Rossum in Shameless

As of January 1st, Los Angeles PBS anchor, the largest single contributing station of original drama to PBS programming, KCET disaffiliated from PBS and the PBS-programming-heavy World networks, remaking itself into the largest and wealthiest of the independent public-broadcasting stations in the US. There is a large handful of other independent public stations around the coutry, most in large markets as well--WNYE in New York City, WYBE in Philadelphia, KUEN in Salt Lake City (KUED, its sibling, is a PBS affiliate), WNVC and WNVT in Northern Virginia (in the DC suburbs and just a notch south), and, a year or so back, KMTP in San Francsico (with mostly international programming) was joined by KCSM in San Mateo (in the San Francisco Bay area)--this last in the wake of the punitive measures the out-of-control Bush Administration FCC was levying, specifically on the vulernable community-college station KCSM...a relatively unwealthy and bureaucracy-bound station...rather than taking on any of the larger, more independent or wealthier PBS stations for any local complaints about "strong language" in the documentary series The Blues. Other PBS entities rallied to KCSM's defense, but between state budget cuts and the legal expenses for the conveniently ideological prosecution, KCSM could no longer easily afford to make payments to PBS for its programming services. KCSM, which as the quarternary or fourth-largest of the Bay Area PBS stations, by the way which PBS ranks its overlapping stations in one urban market, mostly had delayed access to primetime programming and those children's shows the other stations didn't wish to carry...and had been making efforts over the previous decade to offer locally and syndicate new programming from Australian and other sources, as well as generating some new programming locally and for the national market...it was a relatively small step from there to independent status. For their secondary digital feed, they affiliated with MHz WorldView, the small network of international programming based at the aforementioned WNVC and WNVT (the latter a former quarternary PBS affiliate) in the DC area, which features items such as the original Swedish Wallander films, among a range of often impressive mostly European, East Asian and South Asian programming.

KCET's most visible production on PBS recently has been the adult-education program, in its English version known as A Place of Our Own and in its essentially identical but recast Spanish version as Los Niños en Su Casa, both offered five days a week through PBS to member stations and a Peabody Award-winner. To fund this relatively heavy schedule of production, KCET went through a number of fundraisers over the last year or so, which raised its gross income to the highest rate it had been in quite some time...which, in addition to it being the primary station in a four-PBS-station market that is also the second-largest urban market in the country, meant that by PBS's formula for charging stations for their membership dues, that KCET would be hit with a huge new fee even while it was losing state support and some viewer monetary support (in the depths of the recent recession)...despite arguing that the moneys dedicated to the two PBS series should not be counted as part of their larger operating budget. PBS insisted. KCET, already feeling a bit overtaxed by a PBS which was more worried about such programming powerhouses as WNET New York (and the newly-absorbed-by-them WLIW Long Island, NY) and WGBH Boston, and the less prolific, struggling, but very local to PBS HQ WETA Washington, decided to call their bluff...and now California has three large-market independent public stations. KCET picked up MHz WorldView on its former World frequency, and began programming heavily from the public-broadcasting syndicators, which provide a lot of the most visible programming on US public television anyway (such as the travelog Globe Trekker and the newly-revived Ebert Presents At the Movies), mixed with some new-to-broadcast items such as Jim Henson Productions off-cable series for its children's block in the mornings. And the other three LA PBS stations just found themselves trying to work out who will be running what PBS programming when, as the Orange County station KOCE, only recently under threat of being taken over by a religious broadcaster, moves up to being the LA flagship for PBS, along with KVCR and the LA Schools-affilated KLCS.

California, not too long ago, saw a similar tussle between a big national network, NBC, and one of its legacy tent-pole stations, KRON San Francisco, sparked by the SF Chronicle being unwilling to sell the station to GE/NBC in 2002 when offered a better bid by Young Broadcasting; in the subsequent hassle, KRON disaffiliated, became the largest commercial independent station in the country by some distance (since WTBS no longer has a broadcast signal), a move which in the short run hurt both NBC and KRON severely...NBC found clearance on a relatively weak neighbor-market station, KNTV San Jose, which had to expensively upgrade and relocate equipment and make deals with cable providers to get to most San Francisco viewers...and KNTV actually paid NBC for the privilege of running NBC programming at first (the reverse of how commercial networks usually operate), till NBC bought KNTV outright. Nowadays, as a "news"-heavy MyNetworkTV affiliate, KRON might end up an NBC affiliate again, as Young Broadcasting is in deep trouble...it's already clearing some NBC programs when KNTV pre-empts them for local sports coverage.

Following KCSM's example, and that of WNVC/WNVT/MHz Networks (perhaps not that of WYBE, which in attempting to finance itself through offering courses to the general public in television production, and then leasing time on the primary WYBE channel for the subsequent five-minute productions, has fallen on hard enough times that it's disaffilated one of its digital channels from MHz WorldView to lease that signal to a Central New Jersey evangelical Christian station), KCET might well flourish, and start dusting off some of its own impressive back catalog of former PBS drama programming, or exploit its proximity to Hollywood to again start producing dramatic programming for syndication, rather than for distribution through PBS. PBS Hollywood Theater, most famous for their production of Bruce Jay Friedman's "Steambath" in the 1970s, and briefly revived in the 1990s; the late 1970s anthology Visions; the brilliant sitcom anthology Trying Times produced in the late 1980s; and KCET's involvement in such projects as American Playhouse and the 2000s dramatic hour American Family are an impressive set of shows. And perhaps KCET and PBS will rejoin...but we'll see how that goes.

Far less impressive a developement is the introduction, however financially prudent, of interrupting commercial breaks in the Independent Film Channel's film programming. It doesn't help their repeats of such HBO fare as The Larry Sanders Show, either, but it really detracts from the film-flow...much in the way that AMC's similar inserts made films all but unwatchable on that cable channel. Like AMC, IFC is investing in new and retrieved television series, many of the latter, such as The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks, at least were made for commercial television, and their much-touted new The Onion News Network weekly parody series (debuting on Fridays at 10p ET, so as not to go Too head-to-head with The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher) might well be a bright spot...though the same folks are also producing the ESPN-parody SportsDome on Comedy Central simultaneously, feeding weekly on Tuesdays. With luck, they won't be stretched too thin. But the commercial breaks in IFC's films really are unfortunate.

Tribune Media, the jilted partner of Time Warner in the defunct WB Network, now itself the junior partner in the CBS-dominated CW Network, has put up a much less ambitious project, a competitor to the RetroTV network they're calling Antenna TV, both being primarily digital-signal "secondary" networks for commercial stations that have some other affiliation on their primary feeds (and thus differentiated from such small commercial networks as America-One, or even the relatively well-distributed IonTV, which they in some ways resemble). Retro and Antenna particularly are focusing on nostalgia-freighted repeats, but Retro has the much better schedule, as far as I'm concerned...most of Antenna's offerings, with the possible exception of Maude repeats and very little else (I can always sit through another rerun of All in the Family and at least a sizable fraction of, though not all, the episodes of The Monkees, I suppose) that I ever need to see again.

Showtime has introduced an American version of the British comedy/tragedy Shameless, and the pilot of the US version, starring Emmy Rossum and featuring William H. Macy, is not Too shabby...particularly when compared with the new Showtime/BBC sitcom Episodes, which is about as thick-witted and dull as nearly every other Matt LeBlanc project (he's affable, the script of the pilot, at least, is one cliche and unengagingly rote sitcom situation after another), or the increasingly uninteresting Californication (which wasn't all that good when I was briefly blogging about it for the TV Guide website; it, like HBO's similar Entourage, just keeps getting duller and more trivial). Well, at least they aren't quite down to the utter pander of Starz's Spartacus soft-porn and CGI gore series, or Cinemax's soft-porn soap operas, "comic" or otherwise, but close enough. (And even as the soaps slip away on commercial network broadcast, Korean soaps and Eastenders on public broadcasting, Lifetime's various projects, and these lubricious things, starting to move onto Showtime as well, seem to be keeping the form alive. FWIW.)

And, apparently the Sundance Channel, instead of running ads during the movies, might be running banner ads along the bottom of some of its movies throughout the run...I haven't seen this yet, but at least one other Sundance viewer has reported as much. I'll keep my eye out. Goodness. Times really that tough?


C. Margery Kempe said...

That's the American way: grind everything into the ground until you've rubbed every bit of shine off that golden egg. I enjoy British series because they leave you wanting more by not taxing the writers quite as excessively. The ridiculous schedule requires the huge writing rooms that produce for the sausage grinder. If they didn't commit every show to 13 or 26 episodes, they'd have more opportunity to try new things instead of grinding on. But that's antithetical to the "product" of course.

Todd Mason said...

Well, some of the cable series, particularly, are following the Brit model. Pity that doesn't improve the likes of EPISODES, CALIFORNICATION or ENTOURAGE...any more than it did the likes of ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

Todd Mason said...

And, occasionallly, the 13-episode or longer season commitment allows for greater complexity or growth than the six-episode order does. Not often enough, it's true, but there's plenty of Product on Brit TV, too...

David Cranmer said...

CALIFORNICATION seasons one and two had quite a few big laughs. Third season was lame.

I will look into SHAMELESS but will probably go with the British version. I've yet to see an American version of a UK original that I liked better. (I should add since Norman Lear.)

David Cranmer said...

I just read K.A. Laity's comment. She's 100% correcto.

Todd Mason said...

Except when the staff actually do have a unifying purpose or vision. The best US series are as good as the best series produced anywhere in English...and they are usually created in 13 and 22 and 28-episode increments. THE GOOD WIFE this season, ONCE AND AGAIN, THE WIRE, etc.

The original SHAMELESS might well be better in the long run, but it's hard to warm up to. The US one might become hopelessly sentimental, but pretty cleverly danced away from that in the pilot, at least. THE OFFICE is an example, at least in the first several seasons and still, if more fitfully, of a recent series that actually was an improvement on the UK original...in part because the US version did become more complex, didn't run the same several jokes into the ground (even in the relatively short focus of the original series). But the grind has made itself felt from time to time in the past season, definitely.

CALI had some wit about it, but it keeps getting lazier and lazier as it goes along.

David Cranmer said...

I'm sure you're correct about THE OFFICE. Many folks have told me as well but I was (and still am) a huge fan of the original. Plus, Steve Carell does not make me laugh. The strangest thing for sure because everyone loves the guy. I had the same problem with Bill Cosby. I loved him on I SPY but couldn't stand his comedy or THE COSBY SHOW.

C. Margery Kempe said...

But they never let it go: once the product is in place, they keep running it into the ground until they have to pull the plug long after most of the people who originally liked it have stopped watching.

But you're right that the premium cable nets are working with a different model, yet as you also note, there's too little experimentation with the basic product. Too much money goes into it; it has to pay off so they go for safe.

I hate to think what the fuck will happen because of the Spider-Man musical; because people want to see it in the morbid chance of seeing a cast member die or be gravely injured, it's the top grossing B'way show at present.

The freak show lives.

Paul D Brazill said...

I do love Shameless but it seems like such a British thing that I REALLY can't imagine an American version.It seems like a mental idea to me!Good luck to them, though. We called all do with a bit more gleeful nihilsm in our lives, I'm sure.

British versions of U.S sitcoms are usually dire. Brighton Belles- a rubbish version of The Golden Girls- was a laugh free zone and the Russ Abbott version of Married With Children was painfully plummy.

Richard R. said...

Nice article, Todd. Yes, apparently times are that tough, if the only thing being considered is the Profit Line, which seems about all any corporate entity of any size cares about any more. Sure they have to have revenue to stay in business, but now it seems it's profit to the complete exclusion of all other considerations. My wiofe and I were saying last night that it seems we are getting pretty close to the 50%-50% ration of programming content to commercials on the big four.

KCET was a fine station for decades, and I think it would have stayed in the PB system if not for that system also pushing for profit first, programming second, as if they can be separated. KOCE was the local (when I lived in Orange County) alternative, and it was great to have the same series programs such as Nova and Masterpiece Theater (I refuse the newer name) on different nights or different times to catch a missed episode. Local programming was pretty good too.

In the wilderness of Portland, OR public broadcasting, as provided through Comcast, things are pretty bleak, or if they are not we have yet to find the un-bleakness, television or radio.

From our view, Californication was always lame.

Todd Mason said...

David--well, I liked Cosby's standup, though he could be a bit overemphatic. No, really, we got it. THE COSBY SHOW started well for me, but soon devolved into how consistently stupid his kids were, then, worse, how much mugging he could do with just-post-infants.

I like but don't love the UK OFFICE. (Much as I do, Paul, the UK SHAMELESS, though I might not've given the latter sufficient chance yet. Felt a little too close to a whole lot else on that has been imported.)

Well, Kate, some of the odder bits of Adult Swim are all about freak shows, some of them just that and nothing more, as if that was sufficient. Meanwhile, the more usual course in the US is for the brilliant open-ended series to get cancelled quickly (or defunded, as with TRYING TIMES on PBS), so one ends up with only a limited number of episodes anyway...and, infrequently, you get the voluntary shutdown of the likes of the second, 1970s sitcom version of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

Paul...indeed...I wasn't too impressed by the original of THE GOLDEN GIRLS, so can believe the knockoff whas no knockout...and we here had a self-plagiarism of MARRIED in the form of UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER from the same productin folks, and despite a game cast, it wasn't even the modest artistic success that MWC was. While the UK retooling of the inane FRIENDS as COUPLING was certainly a step up, even if the US version of COUPLING died a quick, deserved death, with only Lindsay Price perfoming competently with a bad Yankifying rewrite of the pilot and early scripts.

CALI always did have a slight (and growing) flavor of RED SHOE DIARIES about it. So, Rick, OPB doesn't do much for you? And I suspect KSYS is not carried by Comcast in Portland...yes, having four distinct PBS stations in a market can help with catch-up, definitely...I certainly dug having four in the DC area, when we still did, along with an indy, and having essentially three PBS groups and and indy in the Philly market.

Todd Mason said...

Remarkable how much change has come to the US public broadcasting landscape in the 9 years since I posted this...MHz Worldview is about to end as a broadcast network, almost all the the independent public stations are absorbed or otherwise re-affiliated with the PBS and PBS-partnered networks, and so on.