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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.
"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.