To misquote Mark Twain, the death of KCET has been greatly exaggerated.
KCET left the Public Broadcasting Service on January 1, 2011 after playing a game of chicken over paying PBS nearly $7 million a year in fees. Almost immediately, it lost nearly half of its audience and much of the money that once poured in from subscribers and corporations.
Because of the loss of Southern California’s largest public television station, PBS was also expected to suffer; but, nine days later, PBS stations aired the first episode of a monster hit, “Downton Abbey.”
To survive, KCET sold its Hollywood studio to the Church of Scientology in April, 2011. There is “absolutely no way that KCET can survive as a television station,” the former head of the California Community Foundation told the Los Angeles Times a year later. “They are like the book store that…cannot sell best sellers, can’t sell popular classics, sells books you’ve never heard of and then asks you to contribute to the book store anyway.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery. Its name is “Borgen.”
In October 2012, KCET merged with the San Francisco based Link Media, a non-profit on-line and satellite curator of global media. Link brought to the merger a drama series about Denmark’s first (fictional) female prime minister, written in Danish and broadcast with English subtitles. Not exactly “Downton Abbey.” Except:
“It is remarkable how much suspense and psychological drama the show squeezes out of cabinet shuffles and health-care-reform bills in a small Scandinavian nation,” wrote the New York Times. “I have a rapturous recommendation,” shouted Salon. “Stop what you’re doing and go watch ‘Borgen.’ Added Newsweek, “The Best Political Show Ever no longer hails from Hollywood, birthplace of ‘The West Wing.’ It comes, instead, from Copenhagen, and it is called ‘Borgen.’
One swallow may not make a summer, but one television series can create enormous buzz, heat, noise and social media chatter.
“We’ve had five weeks of the program on the air,” says Paul Mason, KCET’s Chief Strategy Officer and the President and CEO of Link Media before the merger.
“So the television ratings are reflective of the fact that’s it’s a new program. But the web traffic is already pretty impressive – 76,000 page views and 54,000 unique visitors in the first month. That’s more than triple the traffic of our previous most popular program, ‘Doc Martin.’ The most important thing with ‘Borgen’ is for people to sample it. Watch for five minutes and you’ll get hooked. It has been viewed in its entirety more than 13,000 times, pretty impressive for an hour-long program.”
More than impressive, says Ayn Allen, the station’s manager of corporate media. “It’s phenomenal for us!”
Part of getting hooked is watching the amazing Sidse Babett Knudsen as she leaps from being the leader of a small party to running Denmark while desperately trying to keep her marriage and her principles intact. KCET will be airing all three seasons of “Borgen,” with a Season 1 marathon starting July 21 and Season 2 beginning July 26.
Link Media brought something else to the party, an emphasis on documentaries, many of them controversial, including “Shadows of Liberty” about corporate cover-ups and the media. And KCET is the first run repository of two British mystery series.
“George Gently” is an often morally complex series set in 1960s Britain with Martin Shaw as an honorable inspector in a rapidly changing world. For some reason, the series was never picked up by PBS.
“Scott & Bailey” is a British “Cagney & Lacey” with two female constables stationed in 21st century Manchester who, writes the New York Times, “share a deep understanding of each other’s lives and who endlessly hash things out in stolen ladies’ room moments.” The first three seasons will start airing next fall.
“Borgen” means “Castle” and is short for Christiansborg Palace, the building that houses the three branches of Denmark’s government. KCET may not yet have built castles in the air, but it is reaching for the zeitgeist with its castle on the air.