Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Airing their issues: Community members will get a chance to give their input to KTEH programmers at a town hall meeting to be held Feb. 15 at the station.
How can San Jose's public television station KTEH stay relevant in the age of YouTube? Community leaders say it needs to look in its own backyard.
By Diane Solomon
LARGELY LOST within the blur of innumerable entertainment choices is KTEH, Silicon Valley's own public broadcasting station. In October, KTEH (Channel 54) was taken over by Bay Area PBS giant KQED (Channel 9), along with Monterey-Salinas' PBS station KCAH-TV (Channel 25)—all becoming the nation's largest public television operation. Each station will keep its name and TV dial location, but they're now part of a new organization called Northern California Public Broadcasting Inc.
Prior to the takeover, KTEH had been struggling mightily to stay afloat. Increased utility and technology costs make it very expensive to operate a UHF television station, and there's competition from every side: 900 channels of cable TV, and a whole new world of YouTube and other Internet outlets that seem more public than public television ever did.
Neither KTEH's membership nor its $8 million budget have grown, and they've had to downsize. Ten years ago they had 60 employees, today they have about 40. Popular KTEH productions like Malone and Silicon Valley Report were canceled, reducing already minimal local programming to almost zero.
Though KTEH's broadcast reaches 14 counties from King City up to Sonoma, it has only 39,000 paying members and it's hard to find people in Silicon Valley who watch it. Eric Meese, a programmer at community radio KKUP, says he finds nothing worth watching.
"It's mostly kids' stuff and programs like Antiques Roadshow," he says. "They don't have the public affairs and local programming that makes public television public television."
With all of this recent history, you might think the merger with KQED would be a chance to revolutionize KTEH with huge changes. Surprisingly, though, KTEH and KQED leaders say KTEH is just fine the way it is.
The president and CEO of Northern California Public Broadcasting is KQED's president Jeff Clarke. He doesn't see the merger as having saved KTEH. In fact, he says, KTEH was in the black and had what he considers good viewership. The merger, he says, was simply an opportunity to make both stations stronger in the face of competition from cable and new technologies.
Tom Fanella has run KTEH for the last 19 years, guiding the station through thick and thin and is staying on post-merger as executive VP. Fanella says 1.5 million viewers watch KTEH each week because it has standard national PBS programming and British programs not shown on other stations, like EastEnders and their Friday Mystery Night assemblage.
But in the age of instant local news and Internet democracy, how relevant is KTEH to the community it serves?
The Failure of Public Television
David Barsamian, author of The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, says PBS stations like KQED and KTEH don't realize how irrelevant they've become, and that they should take a look at their original mission.
"According to its founding document, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, PBS is supposed to provide a forum for debate and controversy, take creative risks and be a voice for groups in the community that aren't heard," he says. "Instead, it's increasingly National Geographic, cooking shows and Jim Lehrer. It was supposed to be this dynamic alternative to commercialized, corporate-controlled television, and it isn't."
Barsamian says federal funding cuts, corporate underwriting and constant political attacks have beaten down public broadcasting. PBS pulled Postcards From Buster from KTEH and all its stations' airwaves the day Buster visited a Vermont maple farm and showed a girl with two mommies. They did it to avoid criticism from the religious right, which had previously gone ballistic when Jerry Falwell supposedly outed the Teletubbies' Tinky Winky.
"They are afraid to take risks," says Barsamian. "It's become very predictable and boring and with endless fundraising concerts with '60s artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, it looks like programming for older people, which is why few younger people watch it."
Raj Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley Debug, a youth media collective with a cable-access TV show, KKUP radio program and zine and a contributing writer for Metro.
"To us, public TV seems out of date," says Jayadev. "When we stream our videos, we're producing content, the public responds and there's a conversation. When we put our videos on YouTube, the first thing we look at is viewer comments, then we go to their YouTube page. It's interactive. That's why YouTube and MySpace are so popular. I don't think anyone saw this coming, and it changes everything."
Clarke admits that attracting young viewers in the podcast age is tricky.
"Younger people tell us they may not want to join us as members, but they are willing to pay to use our content or pay to subscribe to something that gives them access," says Clarke. "We're learning to adapt in a totally new media environment. Part of it will be free and part of it will be video on demand."
Clarke says KQED is experimenting with YouTube and new technologies, and that they're posting portions of programs on YouTube to alert young viewers about upcoming broadcasts and to let them try before they buy.
"All of our stations are digital so we can convert any content we do for web streaming or downloading," he says.
But they still seem to be missing the point. A recent KQED YouTube search yielded nothing more controversial or creative than a zillion Pink Floyd hits and a trailer for a documentary about quirky white folks in the Mohave Desert. A PBS search was slightly more interesting, but certainly didn't include unheard community voices, unless they were fish. Clarke says the Jean-Michel Cousteau clip of white sharks drew 30,000 downloads in six hours, which seems to make him think PBS is on the right track.
Clarke says they're working with Open Media Network, a nonprofit calling itself "PBS for the Internet," so that website visitors can download portions of NCPB programs or buy them. When users download video to iPod, it can't be projected on large-screen TV without degradation. Clarke says they're experimenting with new software that will allow users to get DVD quality video from an Internet site.
Both Clarke and Fanella say there are going to be big changes ahead on KQED and KTEH to attract more viewers. KQED will be calling the programming shots at KTEH, but will be looking at survey results and input from upcoming town hall meetings in San Jose, Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Monterey.
Fanella says that KTEH's access to PBS' portfolio will go from 40 percent to 100 percent, and overlaps between KTEH and KQED will be reduced to 25 percent.
Local productions have traditionally been among KTEH's best offerings, but new digital and high-definition production technologies cost loads more than analog to produce. Even with a talented and thrifty production crew, this kept them from offering more than a handful each year. Fanella says new NCPB resources will help KTEH produce more original programs like Video I, a show featuring independent film shorts.
The Debate Over Local Programming
Starting in February, Silicon Valley will indeed see more of itself on KQED when it broadens the scope of programs like Check, Please! Bay Area, Spark, This Week in Northern California and a new science, environment and nature series, Quest, to include segments, stories and guests from San Jose.
But Marcela Davison AvilÈs, executive director of Mexican Heritage Plaza, is one of many who think changes like these aren't enough to really serve Silicon Valley—and she thinks PBS' programming will be the poorer for it.
"Silicon Valley has technological innovation," she says, "but our hidden asset is the cultural scene, and it's operating under the radar screen of the broadcast media's attention."
She says KTEH and KQED programmers should take a closer look at what's happening locally.
"If they can broadcast Live From Lincoln Center, why can't they show Bay Area-based programs like our Mariachi Festival? It's kind of shocking that public broadcasting isn't thinking about what's in their own backyard. This year we had a near sell-out crowd of 11,000 at the HP Pavilion. There's a huge audience for traditional Latin folk music and it surprises me that PBS doesn't have more of it."
It's not for Silicon Valley's good, either. With 1.4 million Latinos in the Bay Area who spend $28 billion a year, she says, "it makes sense from a business standpoint to broadcast our programs."
Clarke says this will change because San Jose, Salinas and Monterey cable subscribers are getting a new channel called V-me, Spanish language PBS from New York's WNET. "It will have content from all over," says Clarke, "and content that we will originate. The opportunity will be there for Silicon Valley's Latino artists to appear on V-me, KQED's programs and stand-alone specials. That's the kind of change you are going to see as we develop our content plans in San Jose and the Monterey area."
Davison Avilés says she'd welcome the opportunity to work with NCPB, but because she's found it almost impossible for independent producers to get their work on PBS she's seeking a commercial broadcaster to televise Mexican Heritage Plaza's 2007 Mariachi Festival.
"They don't have to create Spanish language TV," she says, "it's about finding a common element that a diverse audience would enjoy. You don't have to look far—music is the common language."
Clarke and Fanella paint a bright picture, saying they're open to new ideas and community input via their website, phone lines and snail mail and the upcoming town hall meetings. But Paul George, director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, a human rights organization, thinks different. When they heard about the merger, PPJC and the South Bay Mobilization for Peace and Justice gathered 500 signatures and sent Clarke a petition asking him to consider adding Democracy Now!, a progressive news program. George never heard from Clarke, who says he can't recall receiving the petition.
How likely is it that local channel surfers will see Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman—or any other independent news producers—on a regular basis? Or ever? What about locally produced programs like broadcasts from the Jazz Festival, Live from Mexican Heritage Plaza or a Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition round-table program?
Clarke says there's nothing that prevents it, and that we should see more over the next two years.
Fair enough, but the harder truth is that viewers haven't seen much local content on television since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 swept public service requirements away and changed the rules allowing corporations to gobble up stations without limit.
Oakland's Media Alliance says five conglomerates, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp. and NBC, control 70 percent of what's on primetime TV, most cable channels, satellite TV, as well as vast holdings in radio, publishing, movie studios, music and the Internet. They say less coverage of community-oriented news and culture, largely ignoring people of color and working class families, marginalizes local as unimportant.
"It's their exclusion that's the issue," says Norman Solomon, a media critic. "If I have money to invest, I can watch the Nightly Business Report. If I can't even dream of building a stock portfolio, what am I going to watch? Where's the Scraping By Without Much Income Report?"
Meanwhile, who actually owns the airwaves? Barsamian says we do.
"Corporations get licenses from the federal government to broadcast, but the airwaves belong to the public, who don't make a penny from it," he says. This system was codified in 1934 as part of New Deal legislation when the FCC was created.
Barsamian says PBS doesn't follow its mission because of its ties to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal agency originally created to manage PBS. The CPB has significant control over PBS funding, and its board is appointed by the president of the United States. Many of its former board members and employees go on to run PBS. Thus, says Barsamian, the common charge that public television leans significantly to the left of the political spectrum is simply not true. It is run like a business—perhaps too much so, he says, since the supposed public content is severely limited not only by government but also financial concerns.
In House: Nadine Swanson is a studio technician for KTEH. Productions generated locally have always been among the station's best, but in recent years they've gotten costlier.
San Jose's Public Access Gap
Channel 15, San Jose's public access cable TV channel, might have picked up some of the public content slack. Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, for instance, have showcase community media centers where just about anyone can learn professional production skills, use equipment and get content on the air.
But Channel 15's programming is poor because Comcast won't pay for it. Unlike other community media centers, Comcast won't offer free classes or equipment rental, and charges the public a fee to use their studio, so many drop off home-produced video. Comcast won't even put up a website to let viewers know the program schedule or how to get on the air.
Ross Braver, the city of San Jose's Video Communications Manager, promises a better picture in the future at this level as well. San Jose's lawsuit against Comcast went away last month when it granted Comcast a new 10-year franchise. Under the deal, Braver says the city will take over the running of Channel 15 by June 2008.
"No, San Jose did not just get a huge pot of money to spend on cable access," he warns. But if they can collaborate with SJSU or another facility-rich partner and find the funding, viewers may see public access TV like it's supposed to be.
The Future of Public Broadcasting
Meanwhile, Solomon thinks PBS' programming troubles are fixable, if someone dares to put the focus back on the public.
"We don't want to take Antiques Roadshow away," he says. "We want to hear from people or provide relevant programs to the people who can't afford to go to Antiques Roadshow. Democracy shouldn't be one dollar, one voice. There should be an ethic to give everyone's voice equal weight."
Jayadev says San Jose needs a strong public television station.
"If you don't have local media and programming," he says, "a community can't self-organize or plan where it wants to go in the future. Many decisions get made here without public input. Media is the way the public can sneak into the civic conversation even if they aren't asked to be in the room. Local media coverage allows the public to get involved."
NCPB is holding town hall meetings in San Jose, Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Monterey for the community to learn about the merger and tell KTEH programmers what they'd like to see. The first meeting will be on Feb. 15 at 6pm at KTEH, 1585 Schallenberger Road, San Jose.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.