Thursday, August 2, 2007|It’s only television.
It isn’t Doctors without Borders or the First Marine Division, or even, god help us, the Red Cross. It is a week-night public affairs magazine broadcast by KPBS, your local public television station (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, by the way). And now it’s gone.
The death of “Full Focus” will be mourned by San Diegans who care about thorough, thoughtful coverage and analysis of issues and events. But most of the county’s 1 million TV households won’t notice. The audience for Full Focus averaged (generously) a 1.2 rating over both airings (6:30 and 11 p.m.), or 13 thousand households. With a budget of give-or-take $1 million, that’s around $50 per viewer.
Management considered it a million well-spent — great public service is supposed to be the KPBS mission — as long as it actually had the money to spend. And, actually, the station does have it, right this minute. But this year, PBS and NPR dues and other mandated costs will rocket up. Again. By the end of FY ’08, the station could be in the middle of a large deficit hole. KPBS has been down there before and is not about to go in again.
Years ago, we in public television believed that local programming would be the Lancelot that would rescue local stations from the precipice of perpetual poverty. We made our case to Congress for continued appropriation in the name of local programming. I personally sat in Duke Cunningham’s office trying to talk him into defying Newt Gingrich, who wanted to “zero-out” public broadcasting. (I didn’t know then that all I needed for ammunition was a couple of ugly French armoires.) We lobbied satellite companies to carry local stations and cable operators into good channel placement. And when KPBS and public broadcasting survived and even won a few small victories, we gave as good — or better — than we got.
“Full Focus” became a five-day-a-week program five years ago, covering substantive, important issues. In those days, we thought that if we scheduled it, the audience would come. In hindsight that seems quaintly naive. Early on, we broadcast one videotaped “package” a week, if we were lucky. The rest of the time it was pretty much in-studio interviews: Monday, newsmakers; Thursday, the arts; Friday top stories of the week. Oddly, we divided up the talking heads by genre, as if that would make them more appealing somehow.
The show and the ratings improved, but not enough, apparently. As of this writing, Full Focus has seven full-time and three part-time employees, bare bones for a nightly show, but very dedicated and talented. We now broadcast at least one videotape news feature a day, and occasionally two or even three. We just purchased $1.5 million in new HD equipment for the program, hired two new videographers, and got a major grant to cross-train journalists in radio, the web and, (ahem), television.
So why did KPBS pull the plug and let its considerable investment sink out of sight? Why not try to raise the money, cut somewhere else or both? I don’t know, frankly. Perhaps there really are only 13,000 households interested in seeing local people talk about the War in Iraq, health care, Sunroad, Carol Lam, the city budget, the Dead Sea Scrolls or even Mike Aguirre. Hearing about this stuff on the radio is one thing, but sitting down and watching it? Maybe not in today’s media environment.
The nut, the kernel, the crux of the matter is that while $1 million was a tremendous amount for KPBS to put into one show, it was not enough to allow us to add what the show needed to attract an audience today.
But who really knows? Perhaps all it would have taken was a mention of Lindsay Lohan now and then. After all, it’s only television.