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KOCE Buyer Gets Ready for Prime Time

Station's foundation shifts from fund-raising to programming as it prepares O.C.'s public TV outlet to compete with KCET.

November 02, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The group spending $32 million to buy Orange County's public television station is learning a new role.

Once the fund-raiser for Channel 50, the KOCE-TV Foundation now is preparing to operate the station. It will be competing in the second-largest market in the country -- one dominated by KCET-TV Channel 28, its much wealthier public broadcasting neighbor to the north, a station viewed throughout Orange County.

"We really have to produce the product the community is going to want to see," said Joel Slutzky, chairman of Odetics, an Anaheim communications and technology company, and head of the foundation committee that is writing a strategic plan. "Just getting the station and not producing the product wouldn't be a victory in my mind."

The new owners, who probably will take control early next year, are considering ways to produce more local programming through closer ties with schools, businesses and cultural groups, even while planning to cut the budget.

The foundation board is being transformed from what Bob Brown, its president, called a "quarterly social meeting" into a corporate board of directors for the station.

"We've got to set up a whole new company," said Brown, the retired president of Toshiba America. Brown will not be coming out of retirement but will spend more time working on the station than previously.

Brown is one of several prominent Orange County businessmen who marshaled support to buy KOCE and preserve its PBS affiliation when it appeared the highest bidder for the station would be a Christian televangelism organization that would abandon PBS.

One of those businessmen, Dwight W. Decker, chairman and chief executive of Conexant Systems Inc. in Newport Beach, has joined the board. Brown said he hopes to announce at the next meeting, in January, the addition of several other influential businesspeople to the group.

The trustees of the Coast Community College District, which owns the station, voted last month to accept the foundation's bid, with $8 million in cash and the $24-million balance to be secured by a note.

Details are being negotiated. The trustees will meet Dec. 10 to vote on the contract. The Federal Communications Commission must approve transfer of the license.

Already, foundation officials are asking questions about the station's $7.8-million budget. Brown said it is probably too big, and that the station needs to be run like a business. Some of the 62 employees could lose their jobs, he said, although they may be entitled to jobs at the community college district. In addition, the station will lose the $1.8 million it received annually from the community college district.

"We're going to need to shrink for a while and then build back up," said Mel Rogers, KOCE's station manager for the last six years, who will stay on under the new regime.

Cuts may surprise some supporters of the foundation's bid, many of whom spoke in favor of its offer at community college district meetings, especially considering the deep pockets of foundation board members.

Because past fund-raising efforts have been anemic, Rogers said, he plans to double the number of station fund-raisers to about seven. They will concentrate, he said, on plucking more money from corporations. "We've got a window of opportunity, a level of attention now, and we need to be aggressive about what we do in this window," Rogers said.

While it competes for viewers and funds against Southern California's PBS giant KCET, KOCE has grown in recent years, with 4.5 million monthly viewers. The station's prime-time audience has doubled in the last three years, Rogers said.

The money it received in pledges almost doubled over the last three years to $2.17 million.

The station will continue the same counterprogramming strategy used by other PBS stations dwarfed by their big brothers, Rogers said. So while KCET airs "Washington Week in Review" and "Wall Street Week" on Friday nights, KOCE runs a block of British mysteries that are its highest-ranked shows

Because it is an "overlap" station, it can run only 25% of the national PBS shows that gather the large prime-time audiences, like the Ken Burns series on baseball or the Civil War.

"I'm not going to sit here and say it's easy for KOCE," said Tom Fanella, president of KTEH in San Jose, which runs second in the Bay Area to the San Francisco PBS station. "When you're the second station in a market, it's always an uphill fight, but it's winnable."

The key, he and others say, is to win audiences with local programming to set the smaller stations apart. The KOCE-TV Foundation is planning such a strategy, Rogers said, but the station will need to raise money for specific programs.

Shortly before the station was put up for sale, he said, two donors were about to give KOCE a total of $5 million over five years to expand local news coverage.

With the uncertainty over the sale of the station, the donors backed out, he said, but they will be solicited again.

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