Station Break

Beset by budget problems, bereft of substantive local programming, Channel 8 finds itself at a crossroads. Perhaps it's time to put the "public" back into Houston Public Television.

At stake is the station's identity in the 21st century: will it become a primarily academic outlet that just happens to air the productions of the Public Broadcasting Service, or will it find the will and resources to become an aggressive and influential force in the city, one that is needed more than ever as local commercial stations abdicate their news and public affairs responsibilities in search of the lowest common denominator? The question, in other words, is whether it's time to put the "public" back into Houston public television.

With much of public television's upscale audience being tempted by a widening array of viewing options on cable, and with the oncoming telecommunications revolution set to introduce even more choices, it's a question that demands a fairly quick answer.

A visit to a closed-circuit television studio in New York City inspired then-UH president Walter Kemmerer to return to Houston in 1952 with a concept that Channel 8 would never quite realize, but never completely shake, either.

Kemmerer convinced himself and others that UH could save millions in classroom costs by creating an educational TV station that would broadcast classes to the masses. He talked John Schwarzwalder into moving from the school's nascent Radio/Television Department to manage the station. KUHT was up and running by the following year, and shortly thereafter claimed its first administrative victim. UH's board of regents, fed up with overruns for the station's start-up costs, axed Kemmerer a month after Channel 8 went on the air.

It was to be the first of a number of indications that KUHT's future slogan, "The Channel that Changes You," might better apply to employment at Channel 8, rather than the intellectual transformation of viewers.

Kemmerer's vision of an educational broadcasting service never came to pass, although at various times over the last quarter-century, taped classes have made up a significant part of the station's programming. At one point, UH officials even tried to force freshmen to take introductory biology courses by only offering them via Channel 8. By most accounts, the experiment was short-lived and less than a success.

Presently, the station broadcasts 1,500 hours of video classes a year during the late night hours and is hyping distance learning as one of the major functions of the proposed Center for Public Broadcasting. Tentative plans call for more than half of the station's programming hours to eventually be given over to televised courses.

To former director of broadcast production Miriam "Mim" Korshak, who lost her job at the station in the mass layoffs two years ago, the shift in direction to distance learning constitutes a blatant fraud upon the viewer who subscribes to Channel 8.

As Korshak points out, the station has three or four major on-air fundraising drives each year and "constantly" asks the public for further support between those drives. "The issue," she contends, "is the betrayal of public trust on the part of the station and the part of the university with the viewers."

General manager Jeff Clarke, who came to KUHT in 1990 from a university-based station in Madison, Wisconsin, sees no contradiction between public TV and a new direction toward greater university involvement.

"We're licensed to a university," notes Clarke, a heavyset, sandy-haired man who has both admirers and detractors in the station's ranks. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the 14 staffers laid off in the last two years question his competency and his commitment to substantive local programming. One of them derisively labels him the "Wisconsin Dough Boy," a reference to both his physique and allegations that his management spent the station into a hole.

Clarke, however, has his supporters on the ACT board. Chairwoman Patricia Laurent says she's pleased with both the current direction of the station and its movement toward distance learning. Likewise, Cadillac dealer Rollie McGinnis declares himself a firm backer of the current Channel 8 regime.

One problem with applying the distance learning concept to Channel 8, says former station manager Jim Bauer, is that most UH faculty have never liked the idea. If distance learning is to work, says Bauer, there would have to be a "major lobotomy" on UH professors. "I went through the initiation of telecourses at KUHT, and only had about three professors who would have anything to do with it at all. There was this basic thought for a long time that if you go over to that place over there and they put you on film, then all of a sudden, you're no longer needed."

Hobby dismisses the notion that professors would be afraid to commit their lectures to tape. "That is a really good point," he retorts with a touch of sarcasm, "and if I were a piano player playing in a symphony orchestra, I would never allow my piano playing to be recorded and sold on tape." In fact, Hobby says professors of the future may "be paid more and more like TV talent."

Although Hobby has delayed plans for construction of the Center for Public Broadcasting, which has made it as far as architectural drawings, the UH System-staffed Creative Partnerships already has been campaigning to raise $20 million for the building, using a $5 million donation from longtime UH supporters Leroy and Lucile Melcher as seed money.

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