The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Orange County's KOCE moving in on KCET's L.A. turf [Second update]

March 11, 2011 |  4:26 pm

TavisSmiley KOCE continues its drive to be the dominant public television station in not only Southern California but Los Angeles, where the upstart is venturing into turf once dominated by KCET.

Since KCET left the Public Broadcasting Service  network Jan. 1, its ratings have cratered. The station continues to struggle to draw viewers to new and mostly unfamiliar programming.

KOCE, re-branded PBS SoCal, has taken on most PBS programming and its ratings now equal what KCET once drew, with the exception of some fall-off in children's programs, according to KOCE chief Mel Rogers.

The Orange County-based operator is pushing to win over Los Angeles viewers, including with two sold-out live shows Saturday at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. The shows feature the Kratt brothers, who host a beloved public television show on science and wildlife.

In another foray north, KOCE boss Rogers was at the Jonathan Club downtown Friday for meetings. He said he is continuing to search for office space to establish a Los Angeles beachhead for the station. He plans by this summer to move half a dozen employees north to reach out to the community, seek corporate sponsors and the like. Production workers to do shows about Los Angeles will follow, Rogers said. He didn't specify a number.

"It’s really important to us to be creating content in Los Angeles and areas around Los Angeles that we serve," said Rogers. "If we don't do that, I don’t know if we will ever be embraced as legit. And it's our responsibility anyway."

Rogers said he's looking at space that might be donated or given at a discounted rent. He also intends to install some prominent signage to let Angelenos know that the station they might once have noticed, vaguely, as home of "Real Orange" and "Inside OC," is now a player in LA.

One of the criticisms of KCET has been that it has not initiated enough local production. Managers of the station point to "SoCal Connected," a multiple-award winning magazine show covering the region. The KCET leaders say they plan to mount more local productions in the future.

The Big Picture reached out to KCET Friday to see how they felt about PBS SoCal moving into their turf. We'll post their thoughts when they roll in.

[Update, 5:05 p.m. March 11: Perhaps any rivalry between the public T.V. stations is, as Archie Bunker liked to say, a "pigment" of my imagination. I got an email from KCET news chief Bret Marcus who told me "KOCE is simply meeting its obligation as a PBS affiliate as we would expect them to do." He added: "There is room for many voices in the Southern California area."

KCET, meanwhile, is promoting the multi-national coverage it has been able to grant to recent news events, because of its new, post-PBS relationships with Japan's NHK television and with Al Jazeera English.

KCET broke into its regular programming to deliver NHK's live coverage from Japan and aired an hour long English language NHK special on the earthquake and tsunami at 3p.m. Friday. It also put together a special, "Disaster in Japan" to air Friday night at 8 p.m., to be followed by its special "Bracing for a Quake."

The ratings picture is a little murkier. KCET sent over figures suggesting that KOCE's audience since the start of the year is still substantially smaller than the audience KCET attracted during the same period in 2010. But those figures include the early days of 2011, when many viewers were still figuring out that PBS programs had shifted from KCET to KOCE. The KOCE numbers in recent weeks have come much more in line with what one would expect from the dominant PBS station in the market; or at least that's what public television executives have said.]

[Second update, 10:19 p.m. March 11: Later in the day, KCET sent over yet another set of numbers--this one for the week ending Thursday and for the comparable week in 2010. Those figures showed that KOCE has nearly matched KCET's previous audience in prime time but lags substantially behind in other time periods. Across the entire day, from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning, KOCE attracts viewers in just 8,000 households on average. KCET a year ago drew 18,000 on average in that "whole day" rating period.]

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Talk show host Tavis Smiley produces his PBS show at the KCET studio in Los Angeles. He charged that the public TV affiliate left him out of the loop when it dropped from the public television network this year. KCET execs denied it but the feud became part of the larger dust-up as Southern California shifted to a new No. 1 public TV outlet, KOCE. Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images