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Public TV an Important Asset

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The future of public television is important to Orange County, and fulfilling the promise means having a station with a firm financial footing. The discussion over the sale of local PBS affiliate KOCE-TV has underscored the importance of resolving this question, whoever the owner might be.

The county always has had a quirky television landscape, with Los Angeles commercial stations exercising a long reach and complicating the task of bringing focus to issues of particular importance to this county. The development of cable has changed the equation somewhat in public affairs programming, producing a mix of local offerings that range from local cable programs to the public affairs program “Real Orange” on KOCE. The latter has received funding from the Times Mirror Foundation and is produced in association with the Orange County edition of The Times.

The presence of a separate public television station for Orange County, even with the much larger and well-heeled KCET-TV to the north, has presented a unique set of challenges. The county is part of the Southern California region, but its strong sense of identity invites the development of a geographically focused television environment, especially one with the kind of programming found on public TV.

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Fulfilling this dream is another matter. The Coast Community College District, holder of the affiliate broadcast license, has helped make KOCE one of the most watched public television stations in America, and the station has won many Emmy awards. But it is facing a number of financial difficulties. The college district covers about $1.5 million of its $5.5-million annual budget. The fund-raisers are under pressure to make up the difference, and funding new technology to allow the district to retain the license requires even more revenue. Getting things done can be cumbersome as well.

USC and Chapman University both reportedly are involved in talks with the station for a deal. A better-funded owner could mean more original programming and faster responses to the challenges of the marketplace.

All of that could be good for Orange County. There would be obvious advantages to having an owner with a commitment to the county scene.

Understandably, some on the district board are reluctant to part with an asset for the colleges and their students. However the sale discussions come out, the county will benefit if this important community asset ends up on a strong financial base, and with a commitment to quality local programming.

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