Los Angeles PBS station KCET announced Wednesday that it would launch a digital channel offering Orange County programming, increasing competition with Huntington Beach-based KOCE-TV for viewers and donors.
When the station is launched in fall 2007, it will be available to viewers with digital cable service or a digital television. Agreements to carry the station must be negotiated with satellite providers such as Dish Network and DirecTV.
Programming on all stations is scheduled to be switched to digital in 2009.
The channel will be launched in partnership with Cal State Fullerton and is expected to offer programming that will include performances on campus and speakers.
Orange County, with some 3 million residents, would be a large and lucrative television market in its own right. But because it lies in the shadow of the second-largest media market in the nation and has no major broadcast news operation headquartered within its boundaries, its news and events are often eclipsed by those in Los Angeles.
KCET, the flagship PBS station in Southern California, and KOCE already are carried on broadcast and cable channels throughout Southern California.
KCET’s announcement comes as a fight continues over the future of KOCE. An appellate court has overturned the Coast Community College District’s sale of the station to the KOCE-TV Foundation, saying that a Dallas-based Christian televangelist was the highest bidder. A bill that would essentially protect the sale passed the Legislature and is awaiting a decision from the governor.
Until now, KOCE has maintained that it is the only public television station to offer a substantial amount of Orange County programming. That has been the school district’s chief justification of its effort to sell the station to the foundation, which would continue the PBS affiliation.
KCET chief executive Al Jerome said the new station will be funded in part with an Orange County-specific pledge drive and through partnerships with Orange County foundations and corporations.
Jerome and KOCE President Mel Rogers downplayed any notion that the two stations will be in competition.
“Let’s put it this way,” Jerome said. “I think there are opportunities to enhance Orange County programming. I’m not suggesting that KOCE is not addressing it; they certainly are, but there’s an opportunity for us to build upon that. I don’t look at it as competitive; l look at it as doing a better job in public television.”
Rogers said one station’s gain in viewers and donors was not necessarily the other station’s loss and noted that his station had grown in recent years without taking away from others.
“If more media can get down here and cover this county and help Orange County get to know itself and see itself as a community, we’re all for it,” Rogers said.
However, the number of viewers willing to pledge money to support their local PBS station appears to be reaching a plateau, said James Loper, head of the USC Annenberg Program for the Study of Public Broadcasting and a former KCET president. While the size of donations has increased, the number of people who will pledge has flattened out in recent years, he said.
“From a station’s standpoint, the competition for the viewer’s dollar is probably not very welcome,” Loper said. “On the other hand, from a viewer standpoint, it could be that the competition provides better programming or more of it.”
KCET reached nearly 350,000 households per week in Orange County, compared with 219,000 for KOCE, according to a 2005 Neilsen Media Research report. KCET launched a similar venture in the Coachella Valley this year called KCET Desert Cities.
KCET once teamed with the KOCE foundation to bid for the station, but the partnership broke up before it was sold.