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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

KOCE's New Challenges

October 19, 2003

In the end, the right decision was easy. Not only does Orange County keep public television station KOCE, assuming the final purchase details get hammered out, but the Coast Community College District gets a financial windfall even bigger than it had originally hoped.

In the days before the district's board voted on the station's sale, obstacles obligingly fell out of the KOCE Foundation's way in its attempt to purchase the station. Financial powerhouses in the community offered support that helped the foundation to more than triple its bid to $32 million. Two religious broadcasters, including local Trinity Broadcasting Network, dropped out of the race. A third religious broadcaster, the foundation's toughest competitor with a $40-million offer, slipped up and entered its bid a day late.

Even without the last-minute help, a sale to a religious network would have provoked years of legal wrangling as public-interest groups sought to hang up the sale at the FCC level. Contributors to KOCE threatened to seek refunds for more than $12 million in previous donations and grants, which had been given to support public television, not community colleges.

The KOCE Foundation still has many questions to answer. The immediate one is where it will get the $24 million that it is promising to pay over the coming years. Only $8 million of the purchase price would be paid right away.

But an even more fundamental issue is how KOCE will meet the challenge of changing operations to remain solvent once it cannot count on the college district to cover shortfalls.

The station has two new advantages. The transformation to digital programming gives the station at least the hypothetical ability to air up to four channels at once over the airwaves and via cable. (Much depends on whether the federal government will force cable companies to provide the extra channels). Like other PBS stations, KOCE could look into using this new capability to innovate programming that also generates revenue. Broadcaster Pappas Telecasting, which submitted a losing bid for KOCE, wants to bring noncommercial Spanish-language programs to Orange County. Pappas might make a good partner for KOCE, possibly paying for air time while providing needed programs. In addition, freed from its ties with the college district, KOCE should consider making air time available to other colleges for telecourses, and perhaps for government work-training programs as well. Other public television stations around the country already are firming up plans to use digital technology to do these things.

Before the board's vote, a poll showed that 76% of county residents wanted KOCE to remain a PBS station even if it meant accepting a much lower bid than the religious outfits offered. That proved an easy question for respondents to answer because their cash wasn't on the line. PBS stations throughout the nation are struggling to stay afloat. It would be nice to think that 76% of county residents would put their money where their opinions are to help KOCE enter this new era of public broadcasting.

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