The Mel & Elmo Show
Mel Rogers’ KOCE-TV now controls the region’s best PBS programming, including ‘Sesame Street.’ Is he the smartest guy around? Or just the luckiest?
By Scott Martelle / Photograph by Kyle Monk
If there’s such a thing in the world of public television as hitting the lottery, then Mel Rogers has cashed in a winning ticket.
Seven months ago, Rogers was toiling along as chief executive of KOCE-TV Channel 50, the Orange County-based poor cousin to regional PBS anchor KCET-TV Channel 28 in Los Angeles. But in a fog of hubris and money concerns, KCET announced in October that it was dropping PBS to go its own way, and no longer would carry such Public Broadcasting Service staples as “Sesame Street,” “Masterpiece,” and “Charlie Rose.”
Mister Rogers suddenly had himself a whole new neighborhood. KOCE picked up most of KCET’s dropped programming, morphing in a matter of weeks from regional footnote into the PBS anchor station for metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a remarkable twist of fate for a station still recovering from a near-death experience when its 1972 founder, the cash-strapped Coast Community College District, decided in 2002 to get out of the television business. After a five-year legal battle between Christian televangelist network Daystar, which offered $25 million in cash for the station, and the KOCE-TV Foundation, which wanted to continue PBS membership, an agreement reached in 2007 gave the foundation control of the outlet and Daystar broadcasting privileges over the station’s digital services.
“PBS is the most trusted media brand in America,” says Rogers, the station’s president, seated at a conference table in his new Bristol Street office in Costa Mesa. “Why [KCET] would walk away from that, as it did, is just bewildering.”
The station’s decision was so weird, he says, “I just kept thinking any minute I’m going to wake up and it’s a dream, or someone would call and say, ‘Never mind, it’s not happening.’ ”
But it did happen, and in January, KOCE—now rebranded as PBS SoCal—became the region’s main PBS outlet, which is a lot like a kid finally getting to sit at the grown-ups’ table. As proof that the drawing power rests with programming, the new PBS SoCal’s viewership is up 15 percent over that of the old KOCE, vastly expanding the pool of potential donors. At the same time, the station’s most critical ratings are up 37 percent.
“KOCE has done a really admirable job of jumping into the breach and becoming the top PBS station in Southern California,” says James Rainey, media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s been a godsend for the station.”
Rogers fears the O.C. flavor of the original station might get lost in the broader vision, something he hopes to avoid by using the new PBS SoCal to help shred the supposed Orange Curtain that keeps the two regional cultures isolated from each other. Success, he believes, lies in not viewing Los Angeles and Orange counties as separate markets, but as a broadly strewn cultural landscape that belongs under one media umbrella.
“It can happen in any genre, films, politics, and business,” he says. “If you talk about them in terms of everything going on in the market and compare and contrast and discuss the entire environment, then I think we can keep faith with Orange County.”
Still, some of KOCE’s local staples have been shuffled in the station’s program schedule (see above). And there have been stumbles. Initially, Rogers decided the schedule didn’t have room for “Charlie Rose,” which drew the wrath of Rose’s small-but-faithful audience. KOCE quickly found space at midnight. “You spoke, we listened,” the station said, announcing that Rose would be aired after all.
“It’s been a ton of work, and it’s been a lot of long hours, and it’s been killer,” Rogers says. “And it’s the most fun I’ve had ever.”
The top-rated PBS SoCal shows (in alphabetical order)
||The antiques-appraisal series is a ratings gem because it feeds an immutable “found riches” fantasy. So dig Grandma’s old vases and tapestries out of the attic and take your chances with the “Roadshow” appraisers!
||Saturday at noon, Sunday at 7 p.m.
|“As Time Goes By”
||Can former lovers who reunite after a 38-year separation find happiness? Regardless, it’s entertaining to watch them try in this British series starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer.
||Friday at 9 and 9:30 p.m.
||Simply the best long-form public-affairs documentary series ever created. Watching “Frontline” will make you smarter. Period.
Tuesday at 9 p.m.
|“Keeping Up Appearances”
||The quintessential Britcom about a middle-class homemaker who dreams of high society.
||Friday at 8:30 p.m.
||Dropping references to PBS’ longest-running and most honored dramatic programming, including “Upstairs Downstairs,” is mandatory for aspiring Anglophiles during cocktail-party conversations.
||Sunday at 9 p.m.
Wildlife documentarians spend months
in the bush waiting for just the right shot to bring you what its first host, Donald Johanson, called “the magic and mystery of the fascinating natural world.” All you have to do is watch.
|Wednesday at 7 p.m.
||This highly decorated documentary series is for anyone who hated science in high school or thinks history and technology are boh-ring. “Nova” has changed a lot of minds about that since its 1974 premiere.
||Wednesday at 9 p.m.
|“Secrets of the Dead”
||The occasional British series delves into the mysteries of the past, including the lost ships of Rome, the truth about the Battle of Stalingrad, and the royal tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes.
||Wednesday at 8 p.m.
|“This Old House”
||Before “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” before HGTV, there was “This Old House.” Who’d have ever thought you could win an Emmy by showing how to plaster?
||Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
||After more than 40 years, it’s the longest-running prime-time news and public affairs program on television. Gwen Ifill hosts, and the talking heads here still talk without shouting.
||Friday at 8 p.m.
Orange County-based programming
|“The Real Orange”
||Ed Arnold and Ann Pulice report news, interview newsmakers, and examine the issues that affect Orange County. It’s like having dinner with people who know something about everything.
||Weeknights at 5:30 and 11:30.
||The inimitable Rick Reiff of The Orange County Business Journal spotlights the people who shape the area. Tough questions asked nicely.
||Thursday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., repeats Wednesday at noon, Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
|“Bookmark With Maria Hall-Brown”
||The venerable book-and-author program is a must-stop for bestselling writers on tour, and a reliable showcase for local authors and their works. Hall-Brown greets them all like friends.
||Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
Visit pbssocal.org for additional showtimes
Scott Martelle’s most recent story for the magazine was a profile of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness [February 2011].
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.