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Values of a TV deal

September 27, 2006

WHEN THE OWNER OF KOCE-TV, Orange County's public television station, decided to sell, the highest bidder was a Dallas-based Christian broadcaster. But the station's leaders wanted it to remain a PBS affiliate. Rejecting the Dallas bid, in 2004 the owner illegally accepted a lower offer from a well-connected local group. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has on his desk a bill that would allow this deal to stand. He should reject it.

The Coast Community College District put KOCE up for sale as surplus public property in 2004, saying it no longer could afford to subsidize the station. Popular opinion favored keeping it as a PBS-affiliated station, and a foundation supported by local business and civic leaders offered $32 million and pledged to keep KOCE a public station. An offer of $25.1 million from the Dallas-based Daystar Television Network was rejected.

But it soon became clear that this TV deal was loaded with special effects. With complex terms that called for payment over three decades, without interest, and $4 million cut off the price, the winning bid was actually worth somewhere between $19.5 million and $23.5 million, a state appellate court ruled in May, overturning the sale. The court ruled that the college district had shown "the rankest form of favoritism" toward the local bidders and said that it must either keep the station or hold another auction.

Enter Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Anaheim), with a bill allowing KOCE to be sold for less than fair-market value, thus circumventing the purposes behind the state law on selling surplus public property to the highest bidder: ensuring that taxpayers get the best bargain and that deals are handled objectively, without patronage or other favoritism.

As a practical matter, aside from some low-budget local shows and telecourses, KOCE runs much of the same programming as public station KCET-TV, which draws more viewers, even in Orange County. Last week, KCET announced that it would introduce Orange County programming by way of a digital channel, giving KOCE even less reason to exist. Instead of having two PBS stations scrambling for funds, the region could have one, more robustly funded, public station.

Umberg's bill squeaked through the Legislature, but the governor should not add to the injustice by signing it. And if Orange County's financial luminaries are so determined to keep the station public, they can cough up enough in donations so that the Coast Community College District can afford to keep it on the air that way.

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