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.

But with the coming digital technology, the channel may be far too valuable for such a maneuver, which could not be done under current federal regulations, anyway. And Hobby isn't interested in seeing UH sell Channel 8's band. Neither is he particularly keen on the idea of transferring the station's license to a community board, as was the case with a public station licensed to the University of Texas.

"I think [KUHT is] a tremendous asset for the University of Houston," says Hobby. But it's an expensive one, "and getting more expensive," he adds. "Certainly, federal money is going to decrease. I don't think you can foreclose any possibility, but I would sure be reluctant to see that."

Back in the main studio before the fluff picking starts, Weeknight Edition anchor Laura Branch confides that she is not long for this stage of her TV career. She's leaving the station for a job working with troubled teens at Covenant House, which somehow seems a fitting assignment after working for a troubled public television station. Several other staffers say morale at the station is low simply because no one is sure what they might be doing or not doing in the future.

In bringing some shape to that future, System counsel Crowther's upcoming report to the board of regents will be crucial. A courtly, wizened man who received the nickname "Crafty" from Post columnist Lynn Ashby back in the days when he ran legal interference for the paper, Crowther is an expert in television station management issues and possesses a Rolodex full of industry talent. It would be very surprising if the Hobby-Crowther team does not initiate some major changes to KUHT during its tenure, and Crowther indicates that one change will be a renewed commitment to current affairs coverage.

"I think I can speak for Governor Hobby in that we think that's what a station like this should do," Crowther says. "Whether it draws big numbers or not, I think that's part of our mission if we're going to have that license."

To Crowther, the concept of community service "means you interview the county judge, you get Bud Adams to come if you can, and where Channels 2, 11 and 13 can devote two and a half minutes to that, this station can devote 30 to 60 minutes. And that is a function that if you do it right, you'll be giving bites from that tape to 2, 11 and 13 and promoting our station. So I think that is part of the mission we have to accomplish. It's a question of resources."

Hobby recently announced the creation of a blue ribbon commission to study the university's future, and he has suggested that perhaps another group to solely examine KUHT may be in the cards.

Faced with communications and learning technologies that, in Hobby's words, are unforeseeable "not ten years from now, but five years from now," the members of a future commission may be hard-pressed to justify erecting a $20 million temple to marry Houston's only public TV station to a distance learning concept that never worked for it very well in the past.

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