Transformative, Innovative and Entrepreneurial Leader
Secured Enduring Public Media Legacy
Pictured: William H. Kobin
Los Angeles, Calif. – Jan. 11, 2021 – Public Media Group of Southern California, the parent company of KCET and PBS SoCal, announced today with great sadness the passing of legendary public media icon William H. “Bill” Kobin who served as President of KCET from 1983 – 1996. A tribute page has been set up online at kcet.org/BillKobin. Kobin was instrumental to the stability, growth and success of the station and was responsible for a roster of exceptional productions that included the acclaimed national science series The Astronomers, the comedy series Trying Times and the local news magazine and public affairs series Life & Times. His programming team also helped launch the career of Huell Howser. Kobin was a hands-on producer and executive serving multiple public media stations beginning in the 1950s whose leadership and wisdom helped shape the content of public television for decades.
“Bill was an extraordinary leader and had great impact on KCET and public television. His legacy will endure with the millions of public television viewers of two generations who are the beneficiaries of his service,” commented CEO and President of Public Media Group of Southern California Andrew Russell. “As a CEO, a KCET Board member and as the President of the Major Market Group, I knew him for many years and saw how his dedication and deep belief in public television helped to ensure that it was always an indispensable community resource.”
Born in Indianapolis and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Kobin established himself as an Emmy®-nominated television journalist with both ABC and CBS News credentials attending presidential news conferences and inaugurations working with many of the preeminent names in network news – Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner and Andy Rooney. He chose to leave the world of the big networks and align with the fledgling not-for-profit television start-up, NET in New York that was the precursor to the PBS system. With that beginning as the head of public affairs programming in 1963 and rising to VP of programming, his esteemed public television career would last for over 50 years.
His tenure coincided with the growing number of public stations around the country, and with the cultural and political upheavals of the world that he felt demanded to be examined on television. In 1967, Kobin launched Black Journal, the first regularly scheduled series on network television produced by African Americans, featuring candid discussions of racial disparities and the plight of urban communities. Kobin was also involved in the creation of An American Family, the groundbreaking documentary chronicling the Loud family of Santa Barbara that would become the forerunner of today’s documentaries. Additional programming acquisitions under Kobin were the distinctive British series The Forsythe Saga, Civilization and The Adams Chronicles, as well as convinced a young newspaper publisher named Bill Moyers to try his hand at television with This Week, which launched the beginning of his long and illustrious PBS career. Kobin also championed the first live international satellite television production Our World from nineteen nations, with the largest viewing audience ever – 400 million — for that time.
Kobin was drawn to another relatively new up-and-coming public television producer, Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). Now named Sesame Workshop, CTW was the production entity behind the iconic Sesame Street and other seminal children’s programs that were the first ones designed to use television as a teaching tool. He served as Vice President in charge of family and adult programming at Children’s Television Workshop for five years, before another public broadcasting position beckoned him to the Midwest to become president of KTCA/KTCI in Minneapolis/St. Paul, known as Twin Cities Public Television.
Joining KCET in 1983, Kobin’s tenure was characterized by a commitment to strategic long-term planning and he set about immediately to instill an atmosphere of confidence and calm. With unprecedented financial success, Kobin and his senior team identified top priorities as a strategic plan that included production, education and new technologies, all of which are tentpoles to the current mission for the organization today. Kobin and his team took the responsibility for quality, alternative programming and production very seriously. Rather than simply be a conduit for the acclaimed PBS national schedule, they built a production effort that included important local programs, regional and national titles and international co-productions.
Many productions during Bill’s tenure were unprecedented in the use of television to explore the issues of the day, including 1984’s El Salvador: The Road to Peace, the multi-award-winning Life & Times that included a Town Hall event exploring the cause and aftermath of the brutal beating of Rodney King. Kobin was also committed to bringing quality drama back into KCET’s studios and he succeeded with national productions of literary classics starring award-winning actors. These included A Raisin in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Long Shadows. His team created PBS’ first ever homegrown comedy series with the production of Trying Times, an anthology of half-hour comedies by new young playwrights. He launched the career of the ubiquitous Southland personality Huell Howser. By working with RETAC – Regional Education Television Advisory Council – Kobin spearheaded an initiative that provided nearly half a million children with class instruction during the early afternoon and morning viewing hours. Additionally, college credit courses were programmed during the day. He was also successful in securing funding for the production of two nationally lauded children’s series, Storytime and The Puzzle Place, which won multiple national awards.
PBS stations around the country, as well as its leaders in Washington, were taking careful note of the many successes happening at KCET under Kobin. He took on cable deregulation as well as generated an expansive letter-writing campaign to Washington, reiterating PBS’ service to children, its outreach efforts and other programs unique to public broadcasting during Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threat to “zero-out” all funding for public television.
The New York Times characterized the station’s trajectory as “public television’s comeback story of the ‘80s,” noting that the number of subscribers had increased by more than half and their contributions had doubled since he arrived. He achieved an exceptional record of growth and progress during his tenure, in viewership as well as membership and support from donors, foundations and other sources. While viewers and subscribers were paying attention, so was the television industry. KCET’s local programs won 34 Emmy awards during Kobin’s first five years.
Kobin sat on the PBS board of directors, and on its executive, budget and editorial committees. He served as vice chair of the executive council of the Pacific Mountain Network, one of public television’s regional affinity groups. He was a board member of INPUT, the international public television screening conference. He served as a member of the international council of the National Television Academy, as well as the television committee of the American Film Institute. He was invited to join a small and prestigious list of contributors to an oral history project about television at the Center for the Study of Popular Television, housed at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
When Kobin retired from KCET in 1996, he was named President Emeritus retaining a seat on the station’s board of directors and went to work as president of the PBS Major Market group, made up of the 28 largest stations in the system. It was a position he held for 14 years. Kobin was nominated for the prestigious CPB Ralph Lowell Award in 2009, which recognizes outstanding contributions and achievements to public television.
Kobin is survived by his wife Fran and his four grown children.
KCET is part of the donor-supported community institution, the Public Media Group of Southern California, which was formed by the merger of PBS SoCal and KCETLink Media Group. As one of Southern California’s two flagship PBS stations, KCET is on-air, online as well as in the community, and plays a vital role in the cultural enrichment of Southern California. KCET offers a wide range of award-winning local programming as well as the finest public television programs from around the world. Throughout its 55-year history, KCET has won hundreds of major awards for its local and regional news and public affairs programming, its national drama and documentary productions and its website, kcet.org. For additional information about KCET’s original productions, web-exclusive content, programming schedules and community events, please visit kcet.org. KCET Originals and PBS programming are available to stream on the FREE PBS App on iOS and Android devices, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, and Chromecast. KCET is also available to watch live on YouTube TV.
About the Public Media Group of Southern California
The Public Media Group of Southern California (PMGSC) tells stories that matter through original programs that reflect the diversity of our region, and through the full schedule of trusted PBS programs. Our Southern California content channels PBS SoCal and KCET are available over-the-air in the Los Angeles market with programming available to stream on the free PBS App. Our Link TV channel is available nationally on DirecTV and Dish Network. A donor-supported community institution, PMGSC sparks the sharing of ideas at in-person cultural events and community conversations and delivers social impact through a variety of services including those that prepare our most vulnerable children for school.