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Public Has a Stake in KOCE

August 17, 2003

The Coast Community College District has a tough choice on its hands when it comes to selling public television station KOCE. Probably that choice will come down to whether to preserve the station's mission or bring in a lot of money for local community colleges.

Though a one-time cash infusion will look attractive to the financially strapped college district, the board of trustees should remember when it considers the issue Wednesday that the legacy of its public television station will last much longer than the money.

The bid by Los Angeles public station KCET, in partnership with the KOCE-TV Foundation, would keep the Orange County station in the business of public, largely educational programming. Under the joint proposal, the two stations would reduce costs by merging technical and administrative operations, and share some programming.

That bid must be dear to the hearts of district trustees, who have run KOCE along those lines all these years. Though few people in the county like the idea of a locals-only station being taken over by the big guys up north, KCET has vowed to keep Orange County programming such as the "Real Orange" public-affairs show and its series on parenting.

Coast also has an array of religious suitors for the station, most notably Trinity Broadcasting Network, the outfit with the TV studio alongside the San Diego Freeway in Costa Mesa that looks like a giant electric wedding cake. TBN is the world's biggest Christian broadcaster, with assets of more than half a billion dollars.

TBN, which can afford to outspend the public-TV partnership and several smaller bidders, still would have to convince the Federal Communications Commission that it would continue KOCE's educational mission, as well as demonstrate that its programming would be broadly representative of the community.

That will prove a high hurdle for a ministry that preaches an around-the-clock "prosperity gospel," teaching that people who give generously to God (via Trinity Broadcasting) will be rewarded with literal riches. What would TBN do to reflect the broad diversity, religious and otherwise, of Orange County? So far, its leaders aren't saying.

The network's previous attempts at reaching a broader audience have met with vehement backlash, especially after it won, through a coin toss, the rights to televise the 2002 Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl. After a public outcry, TBN abandoned the deal.

Like any other public college, Coast struggles to provide classes during the state's budget crunch. The board will be tempted to view the KOCE sale as a serendipitous way to ease the crisis. Instead, it should keep community welfare uppermost in its considerations -- and remember that the community supported the college district by passing a $370-million bond measure less than a year ago. Not to mention the steady stream of private donations KOCE has accepted over the years. The college has an obligation to the people and corporations who ponied up money to keep its programming alive.

Unlikely as it might seem today, the state's budget woes will eventually ease. The question at that point will be: What kind of local station does Orange County have? It already has plentiful religious broadcasting, between TBN's existing resources and the Rev. Robert H. Schuller's "Hour of Power." The county that recently greeted its 3 millionth resident should not go without a free-standing public, educational station that seeks to inform and aid a diverse population.

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