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.

In a grandiose sales pitch, a Partnerships brochure assures potential contributors that through new digital signal technology relayed by satellite, "KUHT will no longer transmit solely along the broadcast path we know as Channel 8. Indeed, in the coming years, less and less will we think of KUHT as Channel 8. Rather, it will be an electronic gateway to the world of learning, distributing knowledge through fiber optics, microwave and other paths to schools, workplaces and even personal computers."

KUHT, the brochure promises, "will become the hub of metropolitan Houston, the most effective means by which it will function as a coherent regional community. Our roadways will move people around; our airwaves will bring people together."

Late last year, a Creative Partnerships newsletter got a little too creative, proclaiming that the $20 million for the center had already been raised, including $10.5 million in scarce higher education funds allocated by the UH board of regents.

But that allocation ran into protests from university faculty, who presented the regents with an opinion from Texas Attorney General Dan Morales indicating state law banned the use of educational funds for campus television stations. The official in charge of the effort, senior vice chancellor Dell Felder, had not made the regents aware of Morales' opinion or the fact that UH campus presidents had been pressured by Felder into supporting the allocation. Felder may simply have assumed the support of the regents, since the UH System previously had won approval for all sorts of interesting uses of the educational dollars, such as spending nearly $200,000 to build a security fence and other improvements at the official residence of since-departed Chancellor Alex Schilt.

For once, faculty protests caught the ears of the regents and the new team directing the System. Hobby and Crowther had their confidence in Felder shattered. She and Ed Whalen, the vice chancellor for finance and administration, were pushed out of their jobs late last year to complete a purge of the System's top bureaucrats. The proposed state funding for the Center for Public Broadcasting was withdrawn, and the project parameters are being reconsidered.

"It's way over-designed," Hobby says of the 80,000-square-foot center, which, in addition to Channel 8, had also been planned to house campus radio station KUHF, telecommunications labs and studio space for the taping of distance learning courses.

Clarke counters that Hobby is not taking those additional space requirements into account, and he says he looks forward to educating the chancellor on the project. The dynamics of that conversation should be fascinating.

Radio/Television Department chairman Kenneth Short, an eight-year UH veteran with an extensive background in teaching and the British Broadcasting System, believes Channel 8 needs a new facility, but he isn't buying into the System's distance learning rhetoric.

"I've had a lot of experience in long-distance learning," emphasizes Short. "In my years in England I taught, worked with and produced programs for the Open University, which really knows how to do it. In other countries, because of the economics, they do not even broadcast programs." Instead, Short says, classes are recorded on videotape and distributed to users in a much more economical means. "People who are talking here are talking light years in the past in terms of distance leaning."

Hobby himself is currently taking a correspondence course in astronomy from the New York School of Social Sciences, but it's via the Internet on his computer, rather than television or packaged videos. In fact, the former communications magnate, whose family unloaded Channel 2 to the Washington Post just two years ago, allows that he watches little television, and that includes Channel 8.

The chancellor's computer-fed course points up perhaps the most potent criticism of KUHT's romance with distance learning: in the computer age, long-distance education may be more logically provided through cyberspace than through broadcast TV, which is better suited to bringing current events, news and the arts in entertainment form.

KUHT officials talk of solidifying the station's ties to the university, but Channel 8's history makes campus academics skeptical. For the last two decades, the station has had only tenuous relations with UH's Radio/Television Department and the university's main campus, where KUHT occupies an ancient building originally used by Channel 39.

In its early years, KUHT drew on the energy of radio/television faculty and students, a relationship that cooled when the older post-war student enthusiasts moved on. The gulf eventually widened to the point where the Radio/Television Department had almost nothing to do with the station, and students had little occasion to be involved in learning roles there. In recent years, apprenticeships and a hands-on studio lab at KUHT have brought students back, but a distinct chill still remains.

Hobby is still learning the idiosyncrasies of UH life, but even in his few months at the helm, he's detected the hostility on campus to Channel 8, although he's hasn't figured out why it exists.

Crowther, too, senses the disaffection. "Where does it say University of Houston?" the lawyer asks as he plunks one of those ubiquitous Channel 8 coffee mugs on his conference table with a loud thud. Likewise, the signature Channel 8 tote bag neglects to mention a university affiliation. Crowther even notes that the station's color theme is blue, "while [UH's] is red." The feeling, says Crowther, is that the station has segregated itself from campus life while appealing to the wider community for dollars.

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