While the fate of KOCE-TV lies entangled in the courts, the public
broadcasting station's founder follows the action from a quiet home
overlooking the Eastbluff neighborhood.
Norman Watson is 90 now and walks with a cane, slowed by a pair of
hip replacements. Although an emeritus member of the KOCE-TV
Foundation, he plays little part in the station beyond watching it.
But he clearly remembers the origins of Orange County's only public
television service, years before it became mired in litigation.
"When we started this station, we had limited funds, so we used
second- and third-hand equipment," said Watson, the first chancellor
of the Coast Community College District. "Our professionals went out
looking for hand-me-downs so we could go on the air."
Like many in the community, Watson was not pleased with the Fourth
District Appellate Court's June decision to cancel the sale of KOCE
to the foundation, the station's fundraising arm. He believes the
foundation, which he helped to start, won the station legitimately.
More importantly, though, he wants Orange County to continue to have
a local television outlet -- just as he did four decades ago when he
started with a vacant lot in Huntington Beach.
In the latter half of the 1960s, Watson resolved to create
telecourses in his burgeoning college district after seeing them at
the Open University in England. With Golden West College still in the
planning stages, Watson asked architect William Pereira -- who
famously designed much of UC Irvine -- to construct a television
station on the campus.
"I told him I wanted innovative instruction with all the
technological breakthroughs he could devise," Watson said.
For a station that would eventually dominate Orange County, KOCE
had a modest beginning. When Watson's project first signed on the air
in November 1972, it offered telecourses in anthropology, psychology
and other subjects. Often it marketed the programs to other campuses
in the League for Innovation in the Community College, a national
group of which Watsn's district was a founding member.
Soon, Watson and the KOCE administrators -- President William
Furniss and Vice President Robert Moffett -- decided to expand the
station to include local coverage. During the 1970s and 1980s, KOCE
began showing weekly news shows and documentaries, later adding "Real
Orange" and other programs geared specifically to county audiences.
In 1978 Watson also helped to create the KOCE-TV Foundation, a
group of community members who raised outside money for the station.
His official control of KOCE ended when he retired as chancellor in
Watson said he was surprised that the foundation's purchase of
KOCE led to such a protracted legal battle.
"I thought it was all over," he said. "Most of us did. When we got
the official notice from the FCC [Federal Communications Commission],
that looked like the period at the end of the chapter."
At present, the KOCE case is heading back to the appellate courts.
Both the district and the Dallas-based Daystar Television Network --
a nationwide Christian broadcaster that bid on KOCE in 2003 and
claimed that the district deliberately slighted its offer -- filed
for rehearings after the June decision. Daystar's petition demanded
that the court award it immediate ownership of KOCE, while the
district asked the judges to reconsider their ruling canceling the
If the foundation loses control of the station, Watson said, it
would be a significant loss for a county with no other PBS outlet. He
denounced an offer by Daystar's attorneys to devote 20% of airtime to
current KOCE shows while broadcasting Christian programs the rest of
"I don't think that's feasible," Watson said. "You can't ride two
different horses at the same time."