Bill Kobin, a pioneering public television executive who ran Los Angeles pubcaster KCET for 13 years and helped launch the careers of Bill Moyers, Huell Howser and many others, died Friday at his home in Brentwood, CA. He was 91. No cause of death was given.
Kobin worked as a television journalist in the early days of the medium with the Dumont Broadcasting, ABC and CBS News. He produced The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon, which landed him on Nixon’s famous enemies list. He worked with such famous names as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner and Andy Rooney but eventually chose to leave the world of the big networks and align with NET in New York, the not-for-profit television startup that was the precursor to the PBS system. His public television career would last for more than 50 years.
In 1967, Kobin launched Black Journal, the first regularly scheduled series on network television produced by African Americans. It was controversial for its time for its candid discussions of racial disparities and the plight of urban communities. He was also involved in the creation of An American Family, the groundbreaking documentary chronicling the Loud family of Santa Barbara that became the forerunner of today’s unscripted programming.
One of Kobin’s proudest accomplishments was convincing a young newspaper publisher named Bill Moyers to try his hand at television. Moyers’ first series, This Week, was the beginning of his long PBS career. Kobin also launched Firing Line, with William F. Buckley Jr. as its host.
In the 1970s, Kobin was drawn to another relatively new up-and-coming public television producer, Children’s Television Workshop, the production entity behind the iconic Sesame Street, The Electric Company and other seminal children’s programs. He also served as VP 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.
In 1977, Kobin became president of KTCA/KTCI in Minneapolis/St. Paul, known as Twin Cities Public Television. It was there, as the CEO serving a specific community of viewers, that he melded his broad production knowledge with his belief in public television as an indispensable and welcomed community resource.
Kobin was recruited to KCET in Los Angeles, where he began his 13-year presidency in 1983. His programming team launched the career of the ubiquitous Southland personality Howser, whose long-running series included California’s Gold, Visiting … with Huell Howser and Road Trip with Huell Howser.. Life & Times, KCET Journal and California Stories were also series that garnered local awards and significant viewership, and they rescued the financially troubled station.
He also was committed to bringing quality drama back into KCET’s studios with national productions of literary classics including A Raisin in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Long Shadows. His team created PBS’ first homegrown comedy series with Trying Times, an anthology of half-hour comedies by new young playwrights, and he helped to secure funding for the production of national children’s series Storytime and The Puzzle Place.
“Bill was a terrific leader and had great impact on KCET and public television,” KCET’s current CEO and President Andrew Russell said in a statement. “His legacy will endure with the millions of public television viewers of two generations who are the beneficiaries of his service. As a CEO, a KCET Board member and as the President of the Major Market Group, I knew him for many years and was impressed by his dedication to the belief that public television was an indispensable community resource.”
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 then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich threat to “zero out” all funding for public television.
After his retirement from KCET, Kobin became president of the PBS Major Market group, made up of the 28 largest stations in the system, and one of six PBS station affinity groups. It was a position he held for 14 years.
Survivors include his wife, Francis Goodman-Kobin, and four children. No memorial plans have been revealed.
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