Barney the Dinosaur? Meet Jan Crouch

KOCE boss Mel Rogers is betting he can kill KOCE to save it

Illustration by Katherine HyattUnless you're into Lawrence Welk reruns, decade-old telecourses and second-tier British comedies, Orange County public television station KOCE is a dead zone. You could say it's perennially uninteresting. But suddenly the 30-year-old station has become monumentally fascinating because Barney the Dinosaur and the rest of the KOCE gang may be shacking up with scare-hair televangelist Jan Crouch under that great revival tent known as Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).

TBN, the mightiest Christian TV network in the world, based right here in Costa Mesa, wants to buy KOCE from the Coast Community College District. In fact, TBN principals Jan and Paul Crouch are bidding $25 million for the Huntington Beach station in an auction that includes another public TV network and a slew of religious broadcasters.

But it's not yet certain that KOCE will go Christian. Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET wants the station, too, and is prepared to merge with the KOCE Foundation, which heads up the station's pledge drives. But between them, the pair have offered a total of just $10 million—a fact that has led to suggestions that TBN may join with KCET and KOCE in order to block a Hispanic evangelical group out.

All of this assumes the Coast district trustees will go through with the sale, which numerous KOCE insiders say isn't really necessary.

Needless to say, the prospect that the Crouches might interrupt regular programming has more than a few KOCE viewers and employees, uh, what's the phrase, oh yeah: totally freaking out of their heads.

"People keep bringing up the televangelists," said one longtime employee. "The thought of them coming in scares people. I think they have the best odds of buying us. They're the highest bidder. There are a couple of people here who say they want it sold to the televangelists, but the vast majority hate the idea."

Coast district officials and station president and general manager Mel Rogers say they have no choice but to sell. The federal government has mandated that all TV broadcasters convert to digital broadcasting by the end of the year and it's too much for the district to bear. But insiders say the real story is that the sale is the culmination of a war between Rogers and the district over the station—Rogers wants autonomy to build KOCE into a PBS affiliate on a par with flagship stations in New York and Boston, and Coast is sick of spending money on the station at the expense of its campuses.

Insiders also say Rogers is gambling that new owners would grant him the resources and autonomy he wants to build KOCE into a more viewer-friendly station. If so, the risks are high. Both TBN and the Dallas-based Christian network Daystar—founded by Marcus Lamb, once the youngest television exec in the America, and his wife Joni—submitted $25 million bids, and it's hard to imagine them sending lots of dough Rogers' way to fund a bunch of secular PBS programming like, say, one-woman coming-of-age lesbian theater productions.

Meanwhile, it's rumored that TBN, KCET and the KOCE Foundation may even band together in an alliance of sorts to keep Almavision Hispanic Network, a Christian Spanish-language broadcaster, from acquiring the station. At the Aug. 20 Coast trustees hearing on the sale, TBN counsel John Casoria stood up late in the night—long after most attendees had gone home to catch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—to announce that under certain circumstances TBN would work with KCET/KOCE to keep the station in the educational TV game. Colby May, TBN's man in Washington, D.C., explained that TBN affiliate Community Educational Television (CET) is "exploring the positive ways CET could assist them" in buying the station. One way might include lots of cash in exchange for permission to run "some TBN programming," May says. "There's just strong sentiment obviously to see as little disruption as possible in educational television."

Coast trustee Jerry Patterson is among those who really hate the idea of KOCE ending up in a televangelist's prayerful hands. "If I vote that way," he said, "I hope they recall me!"

Many think Patterson's right, that the district trustees would never go through with a sale to such polarizing buyers as televangelists, despite the $25 million offers.

"We all think the idea of selling the station to religious broadcasters is unrealistic," said one staffer. "It's a red herring. If the Coast District trustees decided to sell to televangelists, they'd be in deep shit. There's no way they'd be re-elected."

The other bidding frontrunner is a partnership between KOCE's fund-raising arm, the KOCE Foundation, and Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET. KOCE staffers consider this far more likely, but say it carries the risk that KCET will dump Rogers and Orange County-based programming in order to push their own LA-centric shows.

"The trustees could easily live with a sale to a noncontroversial entity like KCET," a staffer said. But although such a merger looks great on paper—KCET is the only bidder licensed to offer public broadcasting—the staffer said it would be disastrous to KOCE. The concern is that KCET would eliminate most or all of KOCE's locally produced programming and simply run general PBS and/or KCET-produced shows.

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