Barney the Dinosaur? Meet Jan Crouch

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

"They want our transmitter," charged one employee. "We have the best location on Mount Wilson. KCET will come in and gut the station."

Another employee described KCET as "Hollywood."

"They've never wanted to partner with us," he said. "We think they would like to see us dry up and blow away. They could pick up some nice real estate at cheap prices and control their competition. Programs like Real Orange simply will go away after a few months. We just don't trust them."

The amazing thing about the sale is that it may be unnecessary. KOCE actually makes Coast a small profit every year. "This whole idea that the station is financially distressed is hogwash," said one veteran staffer, who requested anonymity. In fact, Rogers himself has acknowledged that primetime station viewership rose 20 percent over the last year, with membership contributions rising nearly 45 percent.

In fact, according to new financial numbers released by Coast District trustee Jerry Patterson—who opposes the sale—KOCE has been making and continues to make money for the district.

Most of KOCE's $8 million annual budget comes from federal public broadcasting funds, but the station still takes in about $1.7 million per year from the Coast District. That money pays for the broadcast of telecourses—televised classes the station started in 1978 after Prop. 13 cut state funds to community colleges. These courses bring the district about $2.2 million a year from students enrolled and studying at home. Net profit: about half a million dollars a year.

"There are some people [in the district] who I think have become a bit greedy," said Patterson, explaining why a majority of his fellow trustees want to dump the station. "But then I found out about this. We will lose $2.2 million a year without the KOCE telecourses."

Yet if you listen to those backing the sale, KOCE was a hundred-pound anchor dragging the district down. According to Rogers' published statement, the $4.5 million KOCE still needs to finish its conversion to digital broadcasting "is simply beyond the capacity of the district."

Patterson and other KOCE insiders don't believe it. "It's a giant pissing match," said a staffer. "The KOCE Foundation has been raising money, and now they're starting to lay claim to ownership of the station. For the Coast Trustees, they've started fighting over everything. It's clear they just got tired of the whole thing and figure holding onto the station isn't worth the trouble. But the district board simply never understood how important the station was to the community."

On Oct. 1, the trustees will make their decision on who gets KOCE. Yet as news of the sale reverberates throughout county newspapers, KOCE itself has mentioned it exactly zero times to its viewers. In fact, KOCE is in the middle of a pledge drive right now.

"Those people pledging now have no clue the station could go away," said a veteran staffer, who added that KOCE would never air the real motive for the sale. "It has never been put on the air because it would shock people. The cover story put out is that the station is worried they'll lose pledges, but mostly they're worried that people will show up in the hundreds or thousands to the trustees meeting and denounce the sale."

Two years ago, cable channel OCN, owned by The Orange County Register, folded after a decade of providing the county with round-the-clock news coverage. Indeed, the potential loss of KOCE as an Orange County-based television station will leave Irvine-based KDOC-TV 56 as the county's sole television station. That's giving Pat Boone's outfit a bit more credit than it deserves, of course, since most of the station's programming consists of The A-Team and Perry Mason reruns, and all that passes for local coverage and/or news is Poorman's Bikini Beach and 20-year-old reruns of Hot Seat With Wally George. KDOC does offer a news show—Southland Today, hosted by Michelle Merker—but it's produced as if Merker were a kindergarten teacher reading the news in a vacuum chamber.

As the Coast District trustees thrash out the future of KOCE, its employees are buzzing with the story of Dallas station KERA-TV and its sister station, KMPX-TV. Both are public television stations, but KERA recently sold KMPX to Daystar. Overnight, there was just one public broadcaster in Dallas.

Unless Coast decides to keep the station, KOCE's future doesn't look good. Though the network has never presented the dynamic programming long promised during Rogers' last six years as station president, its demise will leave Orange County with no true local television news source. The programming has always been bland and/or hokey, sure, but it was our bland and/or hokey.

Nothing exemplifies this better than Real Orange, the nightly half-hour news show that represents Rogers' greatest programming achievement. Light on insight but heavy on pleasant interviews with charity groups and good-guy volunteers, the show is notorious for soft-pedaling bad news. For instance, former Huntington Beach mayor Dave Garofalo appeared on the show at the height of multiple conflict-of-interest investigations into his dealings, yet Real Orange anchors never asked the embattled official about the laundry list of corruption allegations haunting him. During one memorable chat, they talked, instead, about the city's Fourth of July parade.

And today there's a similar aversion around another subject of intense local interest: the impending sale of KOCE.

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