God Rules!

Illustration by Ivan SalazarA religious broadcaster's $25 million bid for KOCE looks more and more like big business—and less and less like mere Christianity.

Documents obtained by the Weekly show that Texas-based religious broadcaster Daystar Television Network promised a satellite network that it would purchase stations like KOCE—called “must-carries” in the media business—and turn them over to the satellite network for the resale of KOCE's valuable broadcast bandwidth.

The federal government created the must-carry designation in 1972 to protect local broadcasters and public stations from the overwhelming power of national networks. But in the Bush era, media giants have punched holes in the law. The resulting race to privatize the broadcast bandwidth is like a virtual land rush.

Daystar's bid for KOCE is illustrative. In an Aug. 20, 2002, letter, Daystar CEO Marcus Lamb told Echostar CEO Charlie Ergen that Daystar will turn over the bandwidth of its “current eight must carry stations and our future must carry stations. This frees up your bandwidth. (Plus, we are in a growth mode and will be getting many more must carry stations.)”

In exchange, Lamb wanted Ergen to run Daystar on Echostar's DISH Network. On Dec. 8, 2002, Ergen signed the deal.

Daystar is one of four evangelical-Christian TV networks interested in purchasing KOCE/Channel 50 from its cash-poor owners, the Coast Community College District, which oversees Coastline, Orange Coast and Golden West colleges. When the district board votes Oct. 15 on whether to sell the station, it'll likely settle on a born-again broadcaster. Besides Daystar, those include LeSEA Corp. of Indiana, Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network and Spanish-language Almavision Hispanic Network.

Financially outgunned, the KOCE Foundation, a community-support group, has bid $10 million for the station and promised to keep it public.

KOCE wouldn't be the first public television station Daystar bought after their agreement with Echostar. In August, the network bought KDTN-TV, one of two public education stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, for $20 million. The results were immediate: most of the programming on KDTN was switched over to the other station, KERA-TV, and Dallas-Fort Worth DISH/DirectTV subscribers were unable to access the channel.

Critics of Daystar's deal with the satellite devil include other religious broadcasters.

“Essentially, what the agreement means is that the people within a community will not have the availability of local programming if they're with satellite providers—assuming there is local programming,” says Marvin Rosenberg, an attorney suing the DISH Network's Daystar deal on behalf of Dominion Video Satellite, a Florida-based Christian direct-broadcast satellite system. “This agreement provides the satellite networks additional spectrum that they can use for anything that they wanted to, whatever is in the operator's best interest, instead of for the public interest.”

Dominion's lawsuit maintains that FCC rules bar Daystar from using its must-carry rights as barter to jump to the head of the line and secure expensive broadcast space with Echostar. Representatives with Dominion declined to comment for this story, referring all inquiries to Rosenberg. But a source familiar with the case notes that Dominion is concerned that Daystar's must-carry disavowal cheats viewers of local personalities in favor of Daystar's nationally syndicated programs, something that should be of great concern to Orange County Christians and others alike.

“Now every time Daystar buys up a public television station, it's millions of dollars of broadcast spectrum that Echostar doesn't have to fulfill,” the source said. “Buying KOCE only makes them look better in the eyes of Echostar.”

“They won't see any local programming if Daystar buys the station,” added the source, who requested anonymity. “They'll see Jerry Falwell instead. But people don't care about Jerry Falwell; they want to see the local pastor.”

Lamb doesn't seem to agree—he reportedly tore up a letter sent to him by Dominion's attorney on a July 8 Daystar national broadcast. He referred to the suit as the devil's work while flashing Dominion's telephone number onscreen. Lamb has not returned calls for this story.

As part of his deal with Echostar, though, Lamb was more forthcoming. In his letter to Echostar chief Ergen, Lamb said he would use his contacts with Christians in the White House to clear the way for a controversial merger between DISH and DirectTV, the No. 1 and No. 2 companies in the satellite business. Lamb claimed to be “friends with some of the President's closest advisers” and said he wielded “influence with President Bush, John Ashcroft, and [FCC chairman] Michael Powell.”

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