HUNTINGTON BEACH — As if they needed a reminder, officials at Orange County public TV station KOCE Channel 50 are learning once again just how popular the BBC series "EastEnders" is.
More than 1,000 loyal viewers of the weekly soap about working-class Londoners have called KOCE since the station announced it will skip over nearly 200 episodes because of a technical wrangle over residual rights.
Consequently, when devotees of "East- Enders" tune in on June 7, they may feel they've just awakened from a three-year coma, finding the show has leaped from episode 342 to No. 534.
A spokesman for BBC Lionheart, the New York-based U.S. distributor of the show, said Wednesday that because KOCE is the only U.S. station still airing only two episodes a week--others show five--it had become uneconomical for the BBC to make the missing episodes available to a single station.
"They told us, 'You'll have to catch up with the current episodes,' " KOCE programming director Roberta Smith said. KOCE is the only Southland station that carries the series, which at one time was the most popular television program in Great Britain.
The gap encompasses a number of major plot developments, including several deaths: pub proprietor Den Watts, who is murdered; Lou Beale, family matriarch, who succumbs to a lengthy illness, and Donna Ludlow, who overdoses.
There are other sorts of departures as well. Angie Watts has an affair with an old friend and later runs off with him, while punk-ish single mom Mary takes her daughter and leaves Albert Square. There are affairs, marriages, splits, births, abortions, illnesses and a rape, all in the fictional borough of Walford in London's working-class East End.
To help ease viewers through the abrupt transition, KOCE is sending callers a two-page update of major plot developments. Some callers, not content with a quick rundown, have been mailed an inch-thick stack of one-page plot synopses covering each of the missing episodes--at considerable expense to Orange County's publicly funded PBS affiliate, Smith said.
KOCE airs two 30-minute episodes of "EastEnders" back-to-back each Friday. The station first announced the change on May 17, along with a phone number viewers can call to request the plot updates. While some of the 1,000-plus callers have said they are unhappy about missing key episodes, "they all are very understanding" that KOCE has no control over the BBC's decision, said station spokeswoman Nancy Lambing.
The volume of viewer response, the greatest KOCE has ever experienced, is a testament to viewer loyalty, she said. "It's like 'EastEnders' are a part of their family. It's amazing how (well) they know these characters."
The reaction also recalls the public uproar over KOCE's 1989 decision to cancel the series, which prompted more than 200 angry letters, 500 phone calls and a last-minute rescue by a corporate sponsor.
Many of the show's local viewers have British friends or relatives and have already been apprised of coming plot developments, Smith said. "The majority of callers seem to be very pleased that we're catching up with England," Smith insisted.
"EastEnders" made its debut in 1985 and after a slow start became one of the most-watched shows in British TV history. On Christmas Day in 1986, 29 million viewers tuned in to watch Den tell Angie he wanted a divorce. Though no longer the top-rated program in Britain, it remains extremely popular.
The show began airing in the United States in 1988. Stations that have been airing five "EastEnders" episodes a week previously purchased the package of shows KOCE missed and because of the increased number of airings, those stations are almost caught up with new British episodes.