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Adults and kids wave placards by side of road, palm trees in background.
Picketers urge college trustees to keep KOCE as
a public TV station. (Photo courtesy of Save KOCE.)

Turning public TV channels into cash
Orange County: High bids come from religion

Originally published in Current, Aug. 25, 2003
By Steve Behrens

Will the licensee of public TV station KOCE in Huntington Beach, Calif., sell its channel to a religious broadcaster for $25 million or accept $10 million, allowing it to remain a public station?

Trustees of financially stricken Coast Community College District are split on that question, says Bob Brown, chairman of the KOCE Foundation, which jointly entered the smaller bid with KCET of Los Angeles.

The trustees are eager for fiscal relief. The college system in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, has suffered so many state funding cuts that it has reduced class offerings by two-thirds this fall.

The board may pick a buyer as soon as its next meeting Oct. 15 [date corrected].

Instructors and students urged trustees to put resources into in-class education instead of public TV, but most of the 70 speakers at a three-hour public hearing last week spoke up for keeping Channel 50 a public TV station, according to Janet English, a public school teacher who is organizing support for public TV through her website www.savekoce.org. The public outpouring of support was “democracy at its best,” she said.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), the county sheriff and a university chancellor were among those speaking in favor of the KOCE Foundation-KCET bid, according to news reports.

The other four bidders in a narrowed field are religious broadcasters, most offering $25 million each. Among them is Daystar Television, which recently purchased KERA's second public TV channel in Dallas.

Trinity Broadcasting, which is based in the area, offered to top any bid up to $25 million. Daystar, based in Texas, bid $25 million. Almavision Hispanic Network, also a religious broadcaster, offered $15 million to $25 million, and LeSEA Broadcasting of South Bend, Ind., bid $10 million cash and $15 million in installments, plus 20 percent of annual cash flow, according to a bid summary by the college system. Trinity claims to be the world’s largest Christian network and Daystar, the second largest.

A Trinity spokesman, John Casoria, surprised the hearing crowd Aug. 20 by saying the public TV bid would meet community needs better than Trinity’s own bid. He said the network, headquartered in the county, reluctantly bid on KOCE to prevent its purchase by “clones” of Trinity that would disregard local interests. Brown plans to ask Trinity how it could aid the public TV bid. Trinity executives were not available for comment.

Agreeing to a request by the seller, the religious broadcasters said they would give the college a standard-definition DTV multicast channel for eight years to carry the college telecourses for which KOCE is known locally and nationally. That amounts to a giveback of up to a quarter of KOCE’s digital capacity.
San Diego public TV station KPBS dropped out of the running when KOCE and KCET formed their alliance earlier this month. Three other bidders also have given up.

KOCE and KCET each will put up half of the $10 million, according to KCET President Al Jerome. They offered to pay $1 million in cash and the rest over time. With donors coming forward to help, the foundation may be able to increase the bid beyond $10 million, according to KOCE General Manager Mel Rogers.

If the foundation and KCET win the bidding for the channel, they expect to combine some operations to increase efficiency, according to Brown and Jerome. They have not yet negotiated the setup, but both say they would preserve KOCE’s services to Orange County.

“We have to do the bold things now, in the analog universe, because the digital transition has been so slow,” says Jerome.
The foundation may also have leverage to win special consideration by the trustees. It has raised $15 million for KOCE over the years and has committed an additional $3.5 million toward DTV conversion expenses, according to Brown. The foundation owns some station equipment, he says.
“We own assets they can’t sell without our agreement,” he contends.

John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, flew in to make a similar argument on the national level.

CPB has given KOCE federal grants totaling $22 million over the years, Lawson told trustees at the hearing. He predicted the federal government would be “keenly interested in getting its money back” if the college system doesn’t let Channel 50 remain a public TV station. In that case, he warned, opponents of the sale might also tie it up for years by appealing the decision.

Lawson also argued that selling the channel to a national religious network would “fly in the face” of a growing grassroots movement favoring local control of media.

The college system trustees already have indicated they expect money for the channel. When they first asked for bids in May 2002, the KOCE Foundation offered no cash—though it would assume millions in pension liabilities, debts and DTV transition costs, according to Brown. The only other bidder, Chapman University, dropped out. And the trustees shelved the foundation’s bid.

Early this year, the college system hired the San Francisco firm Media Venture Partners to ask for new and bigger bids.

Posted Oct. 17, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
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