AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Noncom KPBS Finds Good News In News

The San Diego PBS station began its daily, 6:30 p.m. Evening Edition broadcast 15 months ago and is attracting both viewers and underwriters with its formula of more in-depth coverage and interviews. Starting at the end of the month, the station will move it up to 5 p.m. with a repeat at 6:30, sandwiched in among BBC World News and PBS NewsHour.

Viewers who tuned into the nightly newscast on KPBS San Diego last Friday evening got a healthy dose of stories — some local and some national with a local angle like the impact the fiscal cliff would have on the state’s economy.

Smartly anchored by Dwane Brown on a colorful set, the 30-minute broadcast also comprises interviews with experts and newspaper reporters, happenings on the local cultural scene and brief weather and stock market reports.

But Evening Edition is not your typical local TV news.

The 15-month-old program, which debuted last September, is, according to the Association of Public Television Stations,  the only full-blown evening newscast in the country produced by a public broadcaster — and one of just a handful of local public affairs programs that air nightly on PBS stations.

“There are a wealth of people that want to watch TV news and we are just making sure that we are providing them with it,” says KPBS GM Tom Karlo, who started pursuing the creation of a newscast four years ago

Faulting commercial TV news for being too sensationalized, Karlo has incorporated in Evening Edition features commonly associated with public television, notably the interviews conducted by co-anchor Peggy Pico. On Friday, there were three of them, each 3-5 minutes long.

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Evening Edition does not typically include live, breaking news reports, although the station is equipped with bonded cellular systems to report from the field for big events like elections or emergencies, says KPBS spokeswoman Nancy Worlie.

But Evening Edition’s approach to news doesn’t warrant it, Karlo says. “We want people to have a chance to understand issues more in-depth and educate and inform them and be prepared to deal with the issues that affect their community.”

Karlo says the program is performing well, at least by public TV standards. Evening Edition typically earns a 0.5 to 0.6 household rating in the country’s 28th largest market. That is higher than the average PBS stations in the top 50-metered markets earn during the 6:30 timeslot, Karlo says.

The newscast has on occasion pulled up to a 1 household rating, which puts it competition with news being aired at that time on KSWB, Tribune’s Fox affiliate, and McKinnon’s independent KUSI, Worlie says.

But Evening Edition can’t keep up with the market’s three other network affiliates — nor do station leaders expect it to, she says. “Our goal over time is building a reputation and doing it well.”

Before starting Evening Edition, KPBS already had a large news team of some three dozen staffers that also report for its sister FM station and the Web. It is led by News Director Suzanne Marmion who has been with the station for two years.

KPBS’s success distributing news over those media — particularly its radio station — led to the organization’s foray into TV, Karlo says. “If we could be No. 1 in radio news why can’t we make an impact in TV news as well?”

To do that, the staffers were trained to add TV reporting to their repertoire.

The station bought some new equipment, like cameras. But because it already had a TV studio for public affairs programming and special events, like political debates, the capital costs were far less than starting from scratch.

Altogether, producing Evening Edition costs KPBS an additional $500,000 a year, Karlo says.

Now, that’s a lot of money for many cash-strapped public TV stations, particularly with philanthropy down and the future of their federal funding on the bubble.

But the news operation is making money in a public TV kind of way, Karlo says. It’s helped with fundraising, and donors have stepped up to sponsor particular news beats such as health, education and the environment.

The station’s net assets have increased by $2 million over the past two years, he says.

All of which makes KPBS an example for — or the envy of — other public stations that would like to get into the nightly news game.

“It certainly is a model that many PBS stations would love to emulate, but the challenge is primarily funding,” says Kelly McCullough, GM of KAET Phoenix, one of the few public stations that produce a nightly public affairs program, Arizona Horizon.

McCullough says he would like to produce a nightly newscast that pays greater attention to topics like politics, social and economic issues and the state legislature than commercial newscasts do. “Our hope and intent certainly would be a to deliver a more in-depth newscast.”

But the estimated cost of KAET doing so — about $800,000 a year — is prohibitive for now, he says.

Even producing less expensive nightly public affairs programming is cost prohibitive for nearly all of the country’s 368 PBS stations, the vast majority of which produce weekly public affairs shows, according to the Association of Public Television Station’s Stacey Karp.

“Over the last few years, stations have definitely felt the crunch from the recession,” she says. Everything from membership sales and private donations to grants and corporate contributions to PBS stations are down, she says.

Federal funding covers an average of 15% of public stations’ budgets. In addition, those funds have been cut by about 10% over the last two years, Karp says.

The majority of stations are turning to the Web as the means to increase their news output or concentrating their efforts on radio stations if they have them, she says.

Meantime, KPBS plans to air Evening Edition twice a day. Starting Dec. 31, the newscast will air live at 5 p.m., replacing Rick Steves’ Europe, and repeat at 6:30. BBC World News airs at 6 p.m.; PBS NewsHour runs each night at 7.

“I think we have found the winning combination for public media,” Karlo says.

Yet Karlo also is well aware of the precarious nature of the TV news business — public or private. “We are not putting all our eggs in the TV show,” he says. “It’s just another component of us distributing news in the ways people want to get their media.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].


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David Warner says:

December 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Great story. Would love to see this in my locale.


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