Seattle PBS station blames docs for money woes

A mounting financial crisis has forced Seattle, U.S., Public Broadcasting System station KCTS to dramatically cut its documentary production unit.
June 1, 2003

A mounting financial crisis has forced Seattle, U.S., Public Broadcasting Service station KCTS to dramatically cut its documentary production unit. In a prepared statement issued April 17, the broadcaster noted it had boosted its doc output three years ago ‘to become a major producer of national programming in order to replace revenues lost from traditional funding sources.’ In the statement, outgoing KCTS president and CEO Burnill Clark said, ‘It was an ambitious effort that has not produced the results we hoped for.’

The station revealed to RealScreen that it expects to show a loss from operations of US$1.25 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, and owes the city of Seattle $229,000 in unpaid rent. It’s also in debt to Alexandria-headquartered PBS for $2.8 million in unpaid dues (as a member organization, KCTS must pay fees for content and services shared by all PBS stations). KCTS further acknowledged it is axing 16 staff positions immediately, ‘the majority relating to production.’ Further layoffs of at least 20 people will take place in the summer, the broadcaster disclosed, ‘when existing national production projects are completed.’

Facing widespread criticism for its handling of the financial problems, including an open letter signed by over 70 employees (out of 170), KCTS’s board replaced Clark at the end of May with interim CEO Bill Mohler, five months earlier than Clark had pledged to leave.

David Rabinovitch, KCTS’s former VP of production, left the broadcaster when his contract expired at the end of March. He says the public channel’s financial woes stem from elsewhere in the company, and not from his former department. He contends that he secured over $4 million in production contracts last year. ‘An examination of the books will reveal there was a net revenue from production, probably north of $1 million, but not enough to meet the arbitrary revenue targets set [by management] in order to offset the rest of the station’s deficit,’ Rabinovitch says. He is planning a new production initiative that will split offices between Seattle and Toronto, Canada.

KCTS has not named a successor to Rabinovitch. Two people currently share his former responsibilities: Randy Brinson is in charge of national production and Rupert Macnee oversees national and international productions.

While chief administrative officer Mark Leonard says the broadcaster will still make non-fiction TV – KCTS provided RealScreen with a list of six national doc production titles currently under way, totaling about 24 hours- KCTS spokesperson Pat Mallinson says at least two shows are on hold. ‘KCTS has suspended both these productions, because [external] funding did not come through for them,’ she explains.

The two projects – Rare Earth, a 2 x 60 minute series, and Bloodless Revolution, a one-hour one-off, each with a budget of $325,000 – were to be delivered to Toronto-based Exploration Production, a unit of Discovery Canada. In return, Discovery Canada was to provide KCTS with two programs of its own.

Exploration’s VP of production John Panikkar says his side of the 18-month-old agreement has been upheld, and Nature’s Secrets and Tale of Two Whales (both one-hour one-offs) are ready to deliver. Noting he had been unable to get any info from the station, Panikkar in mid-May sent a letter to KCTS inquiring about the status of the two docs. Mallinson confirms to RealScreen that KCTS received Panikkar’s letter.

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