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Moss Bresnahan, the chief executive of KCTS, is facing a tough economy along with increasing competition from on-demand and online programming. But he remains optimistic about the future of public media.
“There will always be things that are very important that the commercial marketplace just can’t do or won’t do," he says. "And there’s enough people who will chip in and support public media because there’s a place for it. There’s public schools, public libraries, public parks, public media. There’s great value in it and I think that we’ll figure it out.”
Of course, public schools, libraries and parks are still mostly paid for with tax dollars (and many of those are just limping along). What about charging for KCTS content online? Bresnahan says that even with all the talk of the new frontier of fee-based access to Internet content, he can’t envision a public-media model that would ever require the audience to pay. “We want to make our content available to everybody free of charge, regardless of anybody’s ability to pay. That’s central to our mission,” he says.
New programming initiatives that KCTS has in the works also reflect Bresnahan’s faith in localism and his hopes for major giving. Kicking off an arts and culture initiative this fall will be a program called "Reel NW," an independent film series that will “showcase the great independent film community here,” Bresnahan says. “We want to become a part of that whole independent film community.”
He says KCTS is developing other programs to support the arts initiative, including one focused on local music. “We have a world-class arts community in Seattle, and we’d like to reflect more of that on our air.” Bresnahan says KCTS is in talks with potential partners, including the Seattle Channel (KCTS began broadcasting the Seattle Channel’s "ArtZone" program earlier this year), but can’t share any details yet.
The remaining initiatives indentified by Bresnahan — history and science — are in earlier stages of development and don’t have any specific programs identified as yet. Both will likely involve local organizations as partners.
History is a natural for Bresnahan, who loves the subject and who recently joined the board of the Museum of History & Industry. “I think public television is one of the great history teachers that we have in this country with "The American Experience" and Ken Burns specials and "History Detectives." And we saw recent success with the AYPE [Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition] show that we helped develop and air, and the WTO anniversary. Those programs did great in terms of viewership and other measures.”
All of these efforts come with a price tag, and along with the station’s new focus on expanded fundraising, there are changes to business practices and to the KCTS headquarters on the horizon.
“We’re moving toward a project management model,” Bresnahan says. This would put a single manager in charge of each initiative (with oversight of TV and web video, and related events), rather than multiple producers trying to reach consensus. Is this radical shift going over well inside KCTS? “Change is always tricky, always difficult,” Bresnahan says.
Bresnahan says that KCTS is keeping overhead down by not replacing staff positions lost over the past several years. Through layoffs and attrition, the station dropped from a high of 166 employees in 2002 to just 87 last year. “We’re working more and more with independent producers and freelancers so that we’re able to approach productions in an agile and efficient way,” he says.
Meanwhile, Bresnahan is looking to make changes to the KCTS building at Fifth Avenue North and Mercer Street. “We are looking at reconfiguring our space to make it more conducive to this new project model. There could very well be space for other public media or other partner organizations. We’d also like to open the space up a little bit. As Seattle Center looks at its future we’re right up against it. We’d like to integrate more with all the great events that happen . . . have a stage out back that we could both televise and be a part of Bumbershoot or Folklife.”
KCTS has also had conversations with its soon-to-be new neighbor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose massive headquarters is under construction across Fifth Avenue.
“We’ve talked to them about the fact that they’re going to be our new neighbors and we’re a TV station, and so how can we make good use of this proximity. They’ll be bringing in world leaders of all kinds, and so are there ways that we could take advantage of that in terms of programming,” Bresnahan says. This could be as simple as having more guests available for the Conversations program, or some kind of Gates-specific programming once the foundation headquarters are occupied.
Meanwhile, Bresnahan says he’s bullish on the future, and reels off a list of the station’s strengths. “Great viewership. Great membership. Areas for growth. I don’t think KCTS has ever come close to its full potential. We have with these initiatives the opportunity to do great programming with in-depth journalism. The city deserves it.”
Stay tuned. Or maybe go online.
This is the second of two articles. The earlier article is here.
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