Photo by Jack GouldA decade ago, cable-industry experts touted the Orange County Newschannel (OCN) as a model for future local-news programming. Sadly, they were wrong. On Sept. 7, the station went dark after its owners—Philadelphia-based Adelphia Communications Corp.—claimed OCN was losing as much as $500,000 per month.
It was hard to believe. In the television business, few things are more profitable than news programming. Overhead is low, viewership is usually decent, and advertising sales are thus a relative cinch. OCN also enjoyed a near monopoly on almost 3 million Orange Countians. Their only head-to-head competitors were LA's KCAL and Huntington Beach-based public television station KOCE, which for different reasons (indifference and incompetence, respectively) were never serious challengers.
So what happened to OCN?
The local media ignored that question. The Times Orange County wrote its story largely from Adelphia's press release. The Orange County Register, which first owned and always housed the OCN operation, focused on the sideshow. Register editors can't resist sappy, skewed reaction stories; their dutiful reporters found numerous local residents who viewed the station's collapse as cataclysmic and none (what a surprise!) who merely shrugged their shoulders.
For those wondering how a sour old redneck with an incurable cop fetish might see the station's closing, Register columnist Gordon Dillow supplied the answer. Dillow—who bemoans sensationalism—wrote on Sept. 6 that "it ticks me off [that Adelphia] is putting a bullet in Orange County Newschannel's head." Employing his keen reporting skills, Dillow somehow also determined that "generally . . . the folks at OCN are naturally saddened" at the loss of their jobs.
Reg readers got no relief from the paper's editorial opinion pages, where every situation is seen through mind-numbing, often contradictory right-wing ideology. They suggested that OCN had fallen victim to the beloved free market but quickly sabotaged that argument by proclaiming the station had been a "strong product." (Sorry, guys: I've suffered through your Free Market 101 diatribes for years. Strong products always win, right?)
The Register's pathetic performance on the OCN story might have been driven by its savvy owner's interest in re-acquiring the station without offending the current owner. For its part, Adelphia made a Soviet-style attempt to squelch the facts by requiring station employees to sign confidentiality agreements in exchange for severance packages. That move ensured that Adelphia's self-serving spin would dominate the media's coverage. According to Adelphia's Bill Rosendahl, OCN died because—get this—the Orange County market isn't big enough for a TV station.
The 600,000 locals who received OCN in their homes would recognize some of the people who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Not surprisingly, their version of events doesn't match Adelphia's. OCN failed, they say, not because of the particulars of the Orange County market (one of the most sought-after, free-spending audiences in the nation), but because of Adelphia's mismanagement.
"There really was no excuse for this to have happened," one former news anchor said. "Despite the best efforts of what was basically a good TV-news staff, the management had no idea what it was doing. In the end, I believe Adelphia was just looking for a reason to pull the plug. Their hearts were never in it. The sad thing is that Orange County will now be getting second-class TV-news coverage. We will again be the bastard stepchild to LA."
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Some ex-employees attribute OCN's demise to one simple, overarching and avoidable cause: corporate greed. They claim that the station's income was sizable until 1996-97, when management decided to boost short-term profits. In cost-cutting moves, the company forced out some of its best talent (Pete Weitzner, Jennifer Bauman and Beth Bingham) and slashed commissions paid to its then-successful advertising-sales staff.
"I believe that was the critical moment," said one reporter. "They didn't care about keeping the quality of reporters up, and after the commissions debacle, our best salespeople—these were kick-ass salespeople—fled. That department never recovered. Key, major advertisers bailed amid the chaos, never to return. We've had a revolving door of sales managers ever since. I can't tell you how many advertisers complained. The situation was so embarrassing, and it just killed us."
Recently, another veteran OCN employee stood at the bar of an infamous coastal Orange County watering hole and ordered a beer and a soft drink. Not a Weekly fan, he sighed and stared silently ahead when asked for details about the station's closing.
"I am not at liberty now to tell you what happened," he said eventually. "But the truth is not what you've read [in the mainstream press]. We were never hemorrhaging cash. Trust me: OCN made lots of money. Somebody smart is going to see the station for what it was—a money maker—and then rescue it."