Longtime TV station packing its bags

In the coming months, KOCE-TV will move to Costa Mesa, change its name and become the new full-service PBS station for most of Southern California.

And that means finding a new home for the cat.

The station, which has operated at Golden West College since 1972, adopted a feline two years ago when rats began invading its studio. The cat, named Koce (pronounced "COH-see"), took care of the rat problem quickly but still lives there full time, in part because the crew got attached to her.

"Now she's a part of the family," said news director Mike Taylor. "I think if you remove the cat and rats know there's no cat anymore, they'll work their way back in. But I don't think we would ever give her up, no matter what."

Over the next half-year, KOCE has plenty of things to move into the building at 3080 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa. The station announced a month ago that it will replace Los Angeles-based KCET as the region's prime PBS station, and as of Jan. 1, it will be known as PBS SoCal and adopt a slew of national programs. The offices on Beach Boulevard have already started packing up, and the studio plans to follow by June.

When the boxes arrive in Costa Mesa, they'll contain four decades of Surf City history. According to studio manager Roger Genereux, some of the light fixtures date back to the first broadcast. Other items are more modern, including the high-definition cameras the station adopted in September, the computers in the upstairs control room — and Koce, who may function as a mascot even if her rat-killing services aren't needed.

"The hope is that she'll be able to be our studio cat over there as well," Taylor said.

Up in the sky

On a bitter cold Dec. 22, a small crew of half a dozen gathered in the studio to tape the news show "Real Orange." Taylor was filling in for usual anchor Ed Arnold, and co-host Ann Pulice advised him as he glanced at the teleprompter and adjusted his chair the right distance from hers. Genereux, standing behind the camera, looked up at the lighting grid and remembered when he helped to install it 39 years ago.

KOCE was the brainchild of Norman Watson, the first chancellor of the Coast Community College District, who founded the station largely to provide telecourses for students. Within a few years, KOCE grew to include news programs and other local-themed shows.

Genereux couldn't remember too much about KOCE's first-day lineup, except that the station went on the air in the early morning to show "Sesame Street." He did, though, remember that the crew got an encouraging message — one that the show's producer arranged.

"We had the Goodyear Blimp up above saying, 'Good luck, KOCE,'" Genereux said. "It circled around for about an hour."

It wasn't the only auspicious sign for KOCE in its early days. When the station began, according to Genereux, KCET clearly dominated the Southern California PBS market, but the staff in Huntington Beach was excited to work on Orange County-themed programming, which he called a rarity at the time.

Moreover, by the end of its first decade, KOCE had shown a knack for turning out major talents. David Fanning, one of the station's early producers, became executive producer of the investigative news show "Frontline" in 1983. Thom Eberhardt, who made documentaries for KOCE in its early days, went on to direct "Without a Clue," "Captain Ron" and other comedy films.

Leaving home

KOCE changed and expanded over the years, but its studio never moved from the building by the campus amphitheater off Gothard Street.

The studio consisted of two rooms until the mid-1990s, when staff removed the separating wall and converted it into one large workspace. The most lavish end of the room is the "Real Orange" stage, which features an anchors' desk up a small flight of blue-carpeted stairs, green-painted columns on the table and background photos of Fashion Island and the Huntington Beach Pier.

Across the room is the more spare console for "Inside OC with Rick Reiff," with a small stage in between containing two high chairs used for some interview segments.

KOCE had already made plans to move before it learned that KCET was leaving PBS — with offices at one address and the studio at another, staff wanted a single base of operations — and technology provided a further incentive to modernize. Taylor said the new high-definition cameras more easily pick up blemishes, particularly on hand-painted backdrops, which means that a number of sets will likely be built from scratch in Costa Mesa.

"You think, 'There's a little wrinkle in that background,'" Taylor said. "You wouldn't see that on regular TV."

'A very exciting time'

New technology aside, KOCE still follows some time-honored practices. The crew still tapes "Real Orange" in a single session, breaking only for commercials and avoiding retakes.

"We act as if it's live," Genereux said before the cameras rolled Dec. 22. "We're live to tape."

Genereux, who helped build KOCE's first studio, will now help construct its second one. Over the next few months, as KOCE occupies the bottom floor of the Costa Mesa building, the studio manager plans to oversee soundproofing, lighting, pouring new acrylic floors and more.

Among those looking forward to the move is Andra Davis, the station's on-air operations supervisor, who sits in the control room upstairs and monitors the shows to make sure they run on time and have no technical problems. A KOCE employee for nine years, Davis said he sometimes kicks back during down time and enjoys the programs. Now, he said, he's looking forward to "Masterpiece Theatre" joining the schedule.

"It's an exciting time," he said. "A very exciting time."

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