Times Staff Writer

Despite the fiscal storms that have battered Orange County's KOCE-TV in recent years, Jim Cooper's long-running interview show has survived cuts that have swept the station's other news programs off the air.

At least, until now.

Cooper's weekly program, "Jim Cooper's Orange County," which recently won its second Los Angeles area Emmy Award and has been a fixture on Channel 50 since 1972, may get the same ax--unless Cooper himself can raise its $150,000 annual budget entirely from private sources.

"It's all a bit ironic, isn't it," said Cooper, whose 30-minute program, won the local Emmy last month in the independent station category for outstanding public affairs series.

"While our show is winning an Emmy, it is getting a cancellation notice."

A similar fate befell KOCE's much-praised, Los Angeles Emmy Award-winning newscast, "Newscheck" in 1982, and the station's Emmy Award-winning news magazine, "Inside Orange County," in 1983.

Now, KOCE officials said they can no longer fund Cooper's Friday night series because the Huntington Beach-based public station expects its 1987-88 operating budget to be its smallest in years.

The Cooper show, which is the only KOCE-produced nighttime series left, is just one more casualty of a fiscal slide that has meant cutting the staff from 100 to 45 members and shelving prestigious cultural and documentary projects, station officials said.

Last season, station manager Don Gerdts said KOCE could subsidize half the $150,000 cost of Cooper's show with money from a federal grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Next season, however, the total federal grant is expected to be $800,000, the lowest such allocation in years, Gerdts said. And the entire amount will be needed to pay Public Broadcasting Service program fees, satellite costs and other rising "fixed operational costs," he said.

Cooper's one-year contract expires Tuesday, but KOCE-TV officials have given him "a few more weeks" to raise the $150,000 needed to underwrite the 33-program series for next season, Gerdts said. Cooper has raised about half that amount in pledges so far and has until mid-July to raise the remainder or face cancellation of his series.

"Jim's been given a reprieve, so to speak. We know it's a tough situation, but it's all up to him now," Gerdts said.

To Cooper, 66, who was Orange County reporter for the CBS-TV affiliate in Los Angeles for six years before joining KOCE-TV in 1972, his dilemma is just part of the roller-coaster ride in TV work.

"I'm not mad or surprised," said Cooper, whose interview series has dealt with issues ranging from housing and transportation to drug abuse and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

"Television, if nothing else, is fiscal realities. And one reality is KOCE's financial plight."

Although the station's owner, the Coast Community College District, decided last year to continue operating KOCE, the college district's annual subsidies have declined from $3 million in 1977, before the passage of Proposition 13, to $890,000.

With the steep decline in district funding, combined with decreased revenues from federal grants, production contracts and other sources, the station's operating budget has dropped from $7.3 million in 1982-83 to a projected $4.1 million for 1987-88.

And KOCE continues to operate in the shadow of the much larger KCET (Channel 28), the Los Angeles-based public station, which broadcasts many of the same popular PBS national programs. KCET, which has a $25.5-million budget, claims 50,000 subscribers in Orange County, compared with KOCE's reported 22,000.

Meanwhile, KOCE has failed to find major new private donors for either year-round operations or special projects. The $375,000 estimated in the 1987-88 budget for corporate underwriting is not much higher than the budgets of previous years.

A benefit featuring magician Harry Blackstone Jr. on Thursday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was KOCE's first such live entertainment fund-raiser. Benefit officials said Friday that final figures on turnout and monies raised were not available, but they estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people were in the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall. (Tickets were $50, $75 and $200.)

Station officials sought private sponsors to fund a $1.4-million proposal to broadcast three national PBS performance specials from the new Orange County Performing Arts Center. But the plan was shelved this year after they failed to find underwriters.

Until now, Cooper's interview series has escaped the budgetary ax, in part because its relatively low production cost of $150,000 was considered affordable by the station.

By comparison, "Newscheck," which lasted five years, cost $600,000 a year, while "Inside Orange County," which was dropped after 14 months, cost $300,000 annually. Station officials said both were canceled because of a lack of private backers.

Cooper's series has been broadcast under various titles, including "Voters' Pipeline," and has offered the same low-cost format since 1972. Taped in studios, the show featured interviews with political, governmental, educational and other figures, including Gov. George Deukmejian, William F. Buckley Jr. and many U.S. senators and congressmen.

The liveliest sessions usually have been the pre-election candidate debates for local legislative, congressional and other races.

The series' first Los Angeles area Emmy, awarded in 1984, was for a segment on the problems of homeless women. The 1987 Emmy was for a report on AIDS.

To save his series, Cooper hopes the program's second Emmy will generate more donors. He said pledges included grants from three previous key backers: Disneyland, Signal Landmark Inc. and Robert Half Personnel & Accountemps. But raising the rest will be an uphill struggle.

"What's happening now is far greater competition for the charitable dollar in just the past few years," said Cooper, who retired two years ago as a KOCE staff executive but has stayed on to produce his weekly show.

His fund-raising pitch is that cancellation of the series would leave a huge void: "If our show goes, there's nothing to take its place, and that would be truly sad for Orange County. There won't be any (broadcast TV) show that regularly covers the lives and problems of the people here."

While Los Angeles-based stations, including KCET, have expanded their coverage of Orange County since 1972, their efforts are far from being enough, Cooper said.

"L.A. still doesn't report the real depth, the long range and the nuances of Orange County. We have to do it here, because we have the commitment to do so," Cooper said.

"My gosh, there's a tremendous number of issues that need to be covered here more than ever. Think of it--the new cities, the growth issue, flood control, schools, immigrants and much more. And I want to be in on it."

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