Standing beside banks of television monitors and control panels, Parvis Afshar waved his arms furiously, like the conductor of a recalcitrant orchestra, as he directed assistants switching between videotapes and live broadcasting for his morning Persian-language news show.
"And the clip is ready on Beirut?" Afshar barked, while advertisements aired for Southern California businesses owned by Iranian refugees.
The camera picked up anchorman Nouri Sabet-Imani for a report on a bomb explosion that had rocked the strife-ridden streets of Lebanon's capital. As he spoke, a film clip came on the screen showing tangled automobiles and medics carrying injured people.
Afshar's show is part of a hodgepodge of programming in 14 languages on KSCI-TV (Channel 18), licensed in San Bernardino but available by cable or UHF throughout most of Southern California.
KSCI's unorthodox approach to broadcasting--based on a search for unfilled niches, tolerance of a fragmented station identity and readiness to sell air time to the highest bidder--has almost by accident given it a major role in the cultural life of many of the region's immigrant communities. It is the predominant outlet for Asian-language television.
Many immigrants, especially elderly people who have not learned English, get much of their entertainment and news from KSCI, thus finding partial escape from homesickness and the isolation of life in a strange land.
Japanese and Korean viewers can watch same-day network news from their homelands, while satellite transmission of footage from the London-based World Television Network to KSCI for use with local voice-over enables small producers like Afshar to create international news programs.
"We do a lot of things in the morning even before the networks do. We are very proud of that," said Afshar, who before fleeing from the 1979 revolution spent a decade hosting a sort of Iranian "Tonight Show."
Much like American television, the quality of the programming on KSCI ranges from superb to terrible. Shoestring budgets and shortage of personnel place limits on quality.
Sometimes, shortcuts seem necessary.
"Today's Beirut incident was important and we didn't have a film clip, so we used that (film) from the archives," Afshar said after his morning show. "The incidents in Lebanon mostly are alike."
A typical Sunday broadcast day on KSCI begins at midnight with a two-hour Chinese program introducing scenic sights, handicrafts and sports events of China. Next comes 3 1/2 hours of lectures in heavily accented English by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru of transcendental meditation who became famous in the 1960s when members of the Beatles rock group briefly studied under him. A Spanish public affairs show and religious programs in Korean and English follow.
Armenian, Persian and Chinese shows aired during midday present music, dancing, news and soap operas. Next is a program on Israel in English and Hebrew, news from Thailand and a Middle Eastern variety show. The evening hours include Japanese historical and family dramas with English subtitles and a Cantonese music and drama show from Hong Kong.
Weekday shows include Spanish programs in which viewers call a toll-free number to ask on-the-air advice from experts in psychology, law, medicine and astrology. These shows offer an alternative to the soap operas and movies featured by KSCI's Spanish-language competitors, KMEX (Channel 34) and KVEA (Channel 52).
The station also airs shows in Arabic, Hindi, Russian and Vietnamese.
With production studios in West Los Angeles and San Bernardino, KSCI provides some of its own English-language programming, and also sells air time for financial and religious broadcasts in English. The station produces about 24 hours a week of Spanish-language shows, including call-in programs, game shows and news. Programming and commercials in the other dozen languages are provided by 22 independent ethnic companies that buy air time from KSCI.
KSCI's signal reaches more than 5 million households from Ventura County to the Mexican border, an area with more than 1 million ethnic Asians and more than 4 million Latinos, but because of the fragmented nature of its programming there are no ratings of audience size. Advertisers buy commercials simply because they believe the shows draw significant audiences or because they can see the results.
"It helps," said a clerk at Milano Furniture, a store in Hollywood that advertises heavily on Armenian shows. "That's how we get our customers."
Andy Dourandish, owner of Capitol Immigration Center in Los Angeles, said he advertises for Iranian clients on Persian television because "that's what they watch."
"I believe that between 100,000 and 150,000 (Persian-speaking) people watch regularly," Dourandish said.
Noriyoshi Miyata, assistant administrative manager at Yaohan U.S.A. Corp., which runs Asian-specialty supermarkets in Little Tokyo and Torrance, said he believes that a majority of all Japanese-speakers in Southern California watch the evening network news from Japan on KSCI.
Warren Furutani, projects coordinator for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, described KSCI as a modern equivalent of traditional ethnic newspapers.
'Broad Information Source'
"I think it's really an extension of that, using media in the technological age we're in," Furutani said. "It's really a broad information source that for some may appear superficial on the quality side, but because what they offer isn't available anywhere else, it's of enormous value."
KSCI is a for-profit commercial station owned by the World Plan Executive Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded to propagate Maharishi's technique of transcendental meditation, but the guru has no control over the station or the council, station President Thomas M. Headley said.
When KSCI first went on the air in 1977, its call letters stood for "Science of Creative Intelligence"--another name for Maharishi's teachings--and the World Plan Executive Council hoped to use the station primarily "to disseminate our educational program," Headley said.
But the owners decided to make the station self-supporting, and station management spotted a need for television serving Southern California's large immigrant communities, Headley said.
The station changed the meaning of its call letters to "Southern California International" and began selling air time to ethnic broadcasters. Videotapes of Maharishi's lectures were relegated to late-night hours.
"We use them as fillers," Headley said, "because we're on the air 24 hours a day."
Selling air time to other companies "isn't the way to get the maximum dollar" from a television station, Headley said, but it has helped KSCI become modestly profitable more quickly than it otherwise might have.
KSCI stands at the center of a web of ethnic companies that purchase time from the station, then air entertainment and news programs obtained from overseas, local programming filmed either with their own equipment or at KSCI, and advertising sold to Southern California ethnic businesses or homeland corporations.
Some of these firms are virtual one-person operations that do little more than import homeland videotapes, while others may have a dozen or more employees. Some were created in response to the opportunities offered by KSCI, while others predate KSCI's broadcasting debut.
The oldest of the companies is Asahi Homecast Corp., which was created in 1961 as a radio station. It is run by Eugene Shirai, son of the founder, and his wife, Mayumi Shirai.
Mayumi Shirai said she believes that besides serving the Japanese community, Asahi Homecast's English-subtitled dramas provide a convenient window on Japanese life for any interested American viewers.
"Japan and America have this huge trade imbalance problem, and people are blaming each other," she said. "From the Japanese side, they're saying: 'It's because you don't try hard enough. You don't learn Japanese language and culture.' I think it's partly true. For people who want to break into the Japanese market, the first step is to watch the Japanese television shows. I think that's the best educational program."
Suellen Kwok, an immigrant from Taiwan, said she sometimes watches shows in languages other than Chinese.
"There are times I just flip the channel, and I'll find Japanese or Korean programs, or one with the Persian language," Kwok said. "I find it fascinating to watch them--even without understanding--for musical programs or games. Sometimes they have cooking lessons. Those are very interesting, even though you don't know the measurements. One time I watched Japanese flower-arranging, and that was very interesting."
'They Can Get Comfort'
Eileen Chen, executive producer at Chinese World Television Inc., said, "Most of the Chinese feel lonely here, especially senior citizens" but "by tuning to Channel 18, they can get comfort."
Chinese World Television broadcasts local and U.S. news, local Chinese community news and international reports including material from a Taiwan network. "Our responsibility is to let the non-English-speaking audience know what's going on," said news director Alice Ho.
One controversial issue faced by KSCI concerns Korean Television Enterprises, which supplies all of the station's non-religious Korean-language programming. Last fall, critics filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission alleging that KSCI was violating federal rules by concealing South Korean government involvement in its Korean-language broadcasting.
Korean Television Enterprises officials later admitted that the company is owned by KBS Enterprises Ltd., a fully owned subsidiary of the Korean Broadcasting System, which in turn is owned by the South Korean government.
In a March filing with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Korean Television Enterprises acknowledged that it receives $33,000 a month for operating expenses from KBS Enterprises and that it prepares or disseminates "political propaganda" as defined by the U.S. government.
Korean Television Enterprises continued to deny, however, any editorial control by KBS Enterprises. KSCI has defended its own actions by citing Korean Television Enterprises' denial of overseas editorial control. An FCC response to the complaint is pending.
Korean Television Enterprises' weekday evening programming begins with the South Korean national anthem, U.S. and local news, Korean community coverage and KBS network news from South Korea. Other programming includes dramas from South Korea and locally produced shows introducing various aspects of American life.
Korean Television Enterprises' makes a special effort to teach Korean songs to children. The company sponsors a 60-member children's choir that records a different song every month. Each videotape, usually filmed outdoors in a scenic location, is then aired for a month.
Henry Paik, the choir director, commented that he recently met a 2-year-old Korean-American boy who spoke only English but by watching KTE had learned to sing in Korean.