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.

Felder and Clarke responded to the pressure with a proposal to reorganize the staff, in the process eliminating most of the veteran directors like Menuet and Korshak without offering them severance pay or covering vacation time, which, in some cases, ran into hundreds of hours. The reorganization also wiped out news programming at the station by eliminating the newly appointed public affairs direcR>tor, Pat Ryan.

In another memo shortly before the ax fell, Whalen, who by that time was engaged in a bureaucratic feud with Felder, noted that KUHT had run operating deficits of more than $2 million during Clarke's three-year tenure and had reached the end of its fiscal tether. Bauer's emergency fund -- built up over the years, as he says, "from little old ladies' small contributions" -- had been totally consumed.

"If Jeff's [fiscal year] 1994 operating deficit exceeds the year-end fund balance," Whalen wrote, "he may not have another year. The outside auditor would not be inclined to certify that KUHT was a going concern unless the year-end balance is greater than this year's deficit."

The firings that followed Whalen's warning suggested that the station was as inept at showing employees the door as it was in predicting the financial crisis that made the layoffs necessary. Pat Ryan recruited a lawyer friend, Pascal Piazzo, who agreed to represent the fired workers. Since many of the older, better-paid female department heads had been singled out, Piazzo felt the grounds were promising for a class-action suit against the UH System, which would strip the state institution of the immunity it has against suits brought by individuals.

Although a university appeals committee proved unsympathetic to the laid-off staffers, Clarke quietly began sounding out the victims as to what they might take in order not to sue. In the end, at least eight received substantial cash or compensation settlements, including vacation pay, trips and months more on the job to qualify for vesting in the pension plan. (Clarke apparently learned a lesson from that experience: six months later, producers Davis and Canter were given six months' notice but told they didn't have to report to work during that period unless they felt like it, since there was little for them to do.)

Although the former employees and the university refuse to comment on the confidential settlements, it's doubtful any money was saved in 1994 by the layoffs. But some sources believe that the root of the station's financial problems has little to do with operational expenses or the level of public support. The truth of the matter may be that in its drive to accumulate funds for the Center for Public Broadcasting, the Creative Partnerships campaign has actually destabilized the financial underpinning of the station.

"The corporations and other supporters that used to send money in to keep the television station going were solicited for the building fund," says former station employee Korshak. With a limited pool of local contributors to tap, a dollar from one source into the center fund is likely to be a dollar that could have gone to support station operations.

Clarke puts the new building at the top of his priorities. He enthusiastically guided an interviewer through the warren of offices, temporary buildings and a Quonset hut that houses the KUHT operation, painstakingly pointing out the closets converted to production booths. Certainly, Channel 8 needs a new facility, but as one former employee of the station asks, "What are they going to do over there? If the mission is just retransmission of PBS productions and distance learning, what's Houston public TV got to do with it?"

Despite its budget problems, Channel 8 is actually a gilt-edged, if somewhat unappreciated, stock in the UH System portfolio. It holds an FCC broadcast license for a near priceless commodity: a major market VHF frequency. As Radio/Television Department head Short explains, the station is really royalty in rags.

"Channel 8's frequencies are worth millions," he says. "If you put the station on the market as a VHF station in the tenth largest market in the country, Lord knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars such a sale would produce."

Part of that value is the result of new digital technology, which makes it possible to subdivide the band that carries Channel 8 into another four channels. Hobby says that development already has caught the eye of the Texas Medical Center, which is interested in collaborating with UH on the use of some of the additional channels.

Short says it's quite likely the government will soon reclaim most of the additional frequencies freed up by the new technology and auction them off to raise revenue. Some legislators have proposed that a share of the estimated $70 billion from such a spectrum auction go to bankroll public TV. The recently passed revision of federal telecommunications law is mum on the fate of the additional digital channels, which will be addressed in future legislation. Given Republican dominance in Congress and the current deficit-cutting mania, the spectrum fund for public television doesn't appear to be on a fast track.

In the past, say veteran Channel 8 staffers, there have been informal discussions over a possible swap of the station's VHF frequency for a UHF frequency held by a commercial station like Channel 26, a trade that would bring a bonus of $30 to $50 million to KUHT.

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