The House That Wally Built

Casey: Not as mad as hell, still not going to take it. Photo by Jennie Warren

"We're not in a shining moment in television history," says new KDOC president and general manager Dan Casey. That's politely put for a guy who makes a special point of watching the frothing-at-the-mouth Network once a year. But if he's not as mad as hell, at least he's not going to take it anymore. As the new landlord in the house that Wally George built, he and independent owner Ellis Communications are now in charge of the most-lovable underdog in the Southern California television market, and together they're making it the only place to see TV on TV. The worst house in the best neighborhood, laughs Casey, repeating the line he feeds to the New York ad buyers. But really it's the best station on the UHF band.

The independent broadcasters have just about merger-ed/tax-sheltered/retired into obsolescence while taking their uniquely local KDOC-style schedules down into the tar pits with them. Television has lost its moderate middle just like everything else, concentrating on pay cable or sludging to the cheapest options possible—reality shows or talk shows, and Casey notes that Irvine-based KDOC has neither—aimed into an audience with no apparent alternative.

When channel 13 switched hands to MyNetworkTV, it went into more freeform—freefall, amends Casey—programming and put The Good, The Bad and The Uglyon one late Sunday night. The next morning people on the street outside my house were talking about it—shocked and happy to find something besides infomercials or last year's studio limpers or stiffening sitcoms from the dot-com days. And that's where KDOC (Dynamic Orange County) is headed: a wondrous land whose boundaries are limited only by imagination.

That house that Wally built—and Dr. Gene Scott borrowed and Alice Cooper visited—was founded in 1982 by a three-guys-walk-into-a-bar team that included Jimmy Durante, Pat Boone and Fess Parker (among others) and operated under the same ownership until just after this July 1, when Ellis Communications moved in and put Casey up to bat. Against all trends—like trends about to suffocate Huntington's KOCE if its own sale goes through—the new administration made KDOC even better. The best shows stayed—Rockford Files, Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—and eye poison like three-hour Saved by the Bell Saturdays was wiped, replaced with Hogan's Heroes and the long-lost Rat Patrol. And Casey says there's more on the way: midnight movies rolling out now, and maybe one day real local news and an heir for Wally's hot seat, something Casey was intriguingly cagey about.

All they need is a kid's show—every town used to have a real-life Krusty the Klown and KDOC should get Becky Stark and Miranda July the same way Washington, D.C., got Pancake Mountain. Then maybe Godzilla vs. Bruce Lee vs. John Wayne vs. Flash Gordon on Saturday afternoons, and the resurrection of Request Video plus someone to stand over a flashlight and host creep movies, and KDOC will be the last best television station in the world: traditional community programming for a community losing touch with its own traditions.

They get an older crowd but they're slowly trending younger, says Casey, from people who remember when television existed to people who've only seen it tamed down to DVD. The KDOC lineup has a few clogs in it still (too much Ted Danson) but compared to the rest of broadcast it's intensely lively, relying on shows from an era when television had some heart to it—when Simpsons producer-to-be James L. Brooks could remember how much he hated Father Knows Best ("It tormented me!"), because of how painfully imperfect his own life looked in comparison, and could tell writer Robert Duncan that he got into television because "in popular culture, if you do a thing well, millions of people are feeling less alone."

KDOC remembers when Rod Serling—who used to give speeches about the duty to seek out truth—could knock out some of the hardest half-hours ever broadcast, letting bodies swing in silence on a concentration camp gallows and saying more about the world than entire cable news channels can today. Or when Alfred Hitchcock could reserve a few seconds in every monologue to dump on his sponsors—"Fortunately we have one of those intelligent, amusing, dignified, provocative, brilliantly conceived but painfully short commercials . . . "—or when even Johnny Carson could still crack jokes that left a little aftertaste, instead of the lemon-and-ice stuff on late-night now.

To steal a line from someone else, there were more ideas in the first three minutes of TheTwilight Zonethan in most full half-hour programs, and there's a certain energy—electrons or microwaves or something—lost when a show gets canned to DVD. Good old TV drifts down out of the sky like fallout and sunlight and fog; there's a weird spirit that disappears without a set of rabbit ears to catch it, and that's what KDOC—available less romantically to cable customers in that other dimension of sight and sound—beams out: "Real stories, great actors, tons of movie stars-to-be as guest stars—you can't go a week without seeing Robert Redford on one show or another," says Casey. "You need some classics now and then."

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