How L.A. Station KCET Is Rebranding Itself Five Years After Splitting With PBS

Michael Riley KCET - CORBIS - H 2016
Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Press/CORBIS

President Michael Riley, formerly of ABC Family, is leading the charge on carving out the public station's new identity, now with a different target audience, greater digital presence and new original series. Says Riley, "It's like a startup culture."

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As it celebrates 50 years on the air, L.A. public TV station KCET also is in the early stages of an important rebranding effort after breaking away from PBS in 2011. Following a monthslong battle over dues owed to PBS, KCET stepped down as the flagship West Coast public broadcast station and subsequently said goodbye to such longtime programming as Masterpiece and Charlie Rose. In the five years since, the station — which reaches more than 6 million homes in Southern California and 35 million across the country through satellite provider LinkTV — has had to carve a new identity distinct from the PBS label it wore for 40 years.

Leading the charge is former ABC Family president Michael Riley, KCETLink president and CEO since January 2015. Known for shepherding such teen dramas as Switched at Birth and The Fosters, Riley again is targeting millen­nials with a robust digital presence, high-profile acquisitions such as Luther and original series such as SoCal Connected. "It's like a startup culture," Riley, 46, tells THR from his Burbank office as he reveals the challenges and opportunities of going indie. "We're looking at where we want to take KCET," he says. "It's also about understanding where it's been."

What's the formula for an original KCET show?

It's two areas. We talk about this hyper-local storytelling, and that's really about connecting communities together, particularly here in Los Angeles where it's such a diverse culture. But then we're also looking at global perspectives — connecting our communities together and then connecting our communities to the world.

How do you see the brand diverging from its past connection to PBS?

One, we want to look at a more sophisticated audience, whether it's through Luther or these great international acquisitions. How are we building out a sophistication that's unique and different? How do we bring a more contemporary audience back to public media? Secondarily, we're really building out this millennial space. We have a team that's about creating blogs, creating our website and figuring out what's percolating — in the arts and culture space, in the environment space — and what's going on here in Los Angeles. It's a much younger demographic.

What is the biggest misconception about KCET?

We were having trouble breaking through on a number of our initiatives. I felt like we needed to do fewer things with greater impact. I've been spending time with a lot of our key programming and franchises, like SoCal Connected, which is our weekly magazine show, and we are doing shows with much more engagement. They are longer-form segments that we feel are having a bigger impact in the communities that we serve. As an example, we did a half-hour segment on [the natural gas leak in] Porter Ranch that was really about the people and how they are affected.

What do you see as your biggest challenge ahead?

It's continuing to build that community engagement. Anybody with a cellphone or smartphone is a digital storyteller; we want to make sure our doors are open to those people.

How much of a role does fundraising play in your day-to-day duties?

A lot. I spend the mornings sharpening our focus on the programing side, and then lunches in the afternoon sharpening our focus on the revenue side.

How has the adjustment to an independent station been after your years in cable?

I've been in TV for 20 years and feel like I'm supposed to be where I am right now. Coming from Time Warner and building out the international profile of the Turner Broadcasting brands, which was very entrepreneurial, was learning about the economics of TV. Then working at the Walt Disney Company was about content and franchise priorities. At a time when there are seismic changes going on in the TV space, there are seismic changes happening in the public-media environment. It's exciting to figure out how, within this model, to bring a whole new generation of viewers into this new space.