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.

"One minute to the floor."
The director's countdown call brings to attention all the diverse guests gathered inside Channel 8's studio this Monday afternoon. Off to one side of the main set -- a pastiche of blue and earth-toned backgrounds fronted by two faux columns -- a tittering assemblage of prepubescent models for a "pretty bows and pretty clothes" fashion show brings itself to a hush. Nearby, a balding Medical Center cardiologist toting his ambitiously entitled new book, Stressless Mind and a Priceless Body, shifts nervously in his off-camera chair as he awaits his upcoming interview. The anonymous voice again fills the high ceiling space. "We need the monitor routed to CPCR."

The seconds tick toward the start of another Weeknight Edition, a locally produced "information magazine" that airs each weekday from 5:30-6 p.m. and is repeated later each evening. Other than Capitol Report, a series in which legislative lobbyists for the University of Houston, the owner and operator of Channel 8, allow selected politicians to plug their favored issues, Weeknight Edition is the only stab Houston Public Television is currently making at local programming.

For the most part, Weeknight Edition eschews politics, public affairs and all that other potentially controversial stuff in favor of gardening and cooking tips, fashion and promos for the arts event of the week. Provocation is not the intent. Nor, for the most part, is intellectual stimulation. In fact, it's hard to put a finger on just what the purpose of Weeknight Edition is. The content is so soft, commercial television programmers might be embarrassed to ladle it out to viewers. At times, the program seems more like an unintended parody of the new generation of infomercials clogging cable channels.

Over on the studio's second set, which features chairs, a coffee table and fake windows intended to evoke a sitting room, Weeknight Edition anchors Laura Branch and Doris Childress do a last round of makeup checks on each other. Then, the show starts to unfold in a numbing succession of softball segments. There's a taped feature on a Da Camera pianist, a noncritical look at acupuncture practitioners and an interview with the head of a support group for parents with disabled children. And finally, there is the children's fashion show, featuring a procession of the charmingly self-conscious models clad in Colonial-era garb and toting their dolls.

Somehow, you imagine, this was not the bright future for public TV that its pioneers envisioned in the early 1950s, when they talked of challenging the viewer with creative noncommercial broadcasting. But this is what public TV's output has been reduced to in Houston in the last two years, following a massive staff reduction at Channel 8 that decimated the station's ability to produce local programming with anything remotely approaching substance.

Of course, it's not exactly a new development. Since its launch in 1953, Channel 8 has been periodically criticized for doing little more than retransmitting the national meat of the Public Broadcasting Service -- the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Masterpiece Theater, Sesame Street and a stable of other children's shows -- while taking care, for the most part, not to rock the local boat with provocative documentaries or in-depth issues coverage. At present, that's apparently enough for the station to draw an estimated audience of a million plus local households a week. But other than being the nation's first public television station, KUHT's history is marked by just one national distinction: its refusal to broadcast the controversial PBS productions Death of a Princess in 1980 and Tongues Untied a decade later.

After 43 ho-hum years, KUHT now finds itself at a crossroads. The bulk of its funding comes from the station's viewers via pledges to the Association for Community Television. Yet Channel 8 is hardly a "community" station: the volunteer members of the ACT board have little real influence on how the station is run, or where it is going. Those calls are made by the station manager, who is hired by University of Houston System officials, who are ultimately answerable to the System's board of regents.

In the past year, UH has begun redirecting Channel 8 toward educational priorities in the form of "distance learning," an update of the old telecourse concept that has been tried off and on at the station since its inception. Distance learning is a currently fashionable concept at other cash-strapped university-based stations around the country, but one outspoken public television veteran warns that it is a diversion from the medium's prime mission. In his recently published book The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, former National Educational Television president James Day writes that public television's ongoing "retreat to the secure redoubt of education" from which it emerged in the fifties is "regressive and the wrong way to go." According to Day, "no area of television programming cries out more insistently for quality than the treatment of news and current affairs," the very area that Channel 8 seems to have abandoned.

As part of KUHT's reorientation, the construction of a new $20 million Center for Public Broadcasting has been proposed to replace the station's cramped and outdated facilities on UH's main campus. That ambitious plan is on hold, for now, with new System Chancellor Bill Hobby, the former lieutenant governor and onetime media executive, having assigned his family's longtime legal counsel, Jim Crowther, to reexamine both the proposed new center and the future of Channel 8.

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.

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.

According to Radio/Television Department chairman Short, faculty resentment over the station's standoffish posture intensified when vice chancellor Felder attempted to channel the state higher education funding into the Center for Public Broadcasting project.

With or without those dollars, station manager Clarke says, Channel 8 is already moving on a course toward a greater sharing of the university's education functions.

"It makes sense in my mind that we have a role and a responsibility to help that university and others serve their students," says Clarke. "We're poised to be partners with all kinds of educational institutions and educators, and we're already headed down that path -- essentially back to our roots."

It's a trip that some old public TV hands would like to abort in its infancy.

Both Korshak and former KUHT manager Bauer argue that the time has come to consider transforming Channel 8 into a viable public station by transferring its license to a community board whose priorities would better reflect those of the people whose contributions supply most of the station's budget. The notion is also endorsed by Marty Levine, the chair emeritus of the ACT board, and Mary Fay Way, who resigned as ACT's chair in 1994 in disgust over Clarke's management. However, that's a move that could not be made without the voluntary cooperation of UH, which is unlikely, given the immense value of the station's broadcast license.

Clarke arrived at the station as the heir apparent to Bauer, a wily Air Force vet who, for two decades, managed Channel 8 within budget while placating the succession of university administrators who oversaw its operations.

In one respect, Bauer was perfectly suited to the job.
"If anything, I was more conservative than them," he says of the UH brass. It's a tradition that the new manager has done little to disrupt.

Bauer was quite willing to shoulder the responsibility for the station's most celebrated act of censorship, its refusal to air the docudrama Death of a Princess after the Saudi government and its clients, American oil companies who contributed heavily to PBS, protested its airing in 1980.

In his recently published book, former National Educational Television president James Day describes with pride how the furor "put to the test PBS's independence and integrity and subjected the system to the heaviest political and public pressure since the days of Richard Nixon. Against all expectation, public television held its ground."

Maybe somewhere else, but not in Houston, which became one of the few major market stations to refuse to air the show.

The independently produced program had incensed Saudi traditionalists with its scandalous depiction of the sexual doings of the country's royalty. Channel 8's refusal to show it provoked a lawsuit by educational activist Gertrude Barnstone that was unsuccessfully argued by attorney David Berg as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually refused to hear it. Local viewers who wished to see Princess had to settle for screenings at the Rice Media Center.

History repeated itself a decade later, when KUHT became the only major-market public station other than Detroit's to refuse to air Tongues Untied, a documentary on black gay subculture. Bauer and Clarke, who had not yet become manager, take joint responsibility for the decision, citing the strong language content of Tongues Untied.

Currently, the station'sR> policy is to use the Public Broadcasting Service's edited versions of programs that are supplied to the most conservative stations in the market. That's why fans of the Brit-produced Prime Suspect series have watched Helen Mirren open her mouth to say "bloody," and heard nothing come out.

Clarke says it may be time to review Channel 8's use of the edited versions of PBS programs. But he didn't sound enthusiastic about the prospect, nor is he apologetic for the mush being served up by Weeknight Edition.

"We're not doing hard news and hard public affairs," he says. "With Weeknight Edition, what we are attempting to do is to have a broad spectrum of opportunity to go out throughout the community and tell stories. So it's more informational programming." The show, according to Clarke, is as well watched as "anything we've had on in local programming, and it's there every day." He acknowledges criticism of the soft, fuzzy approach, but he and his programmers "believe that we have developed the vehicle which will better serve the total community."

Despite its high saccharine content, the format does allow Channel 8 to stimulate support by plugging organizations that couldn't get such lengthy exposure elsewhere. It's as much a publicists' service as a public one. The production and on-air folks perform competently, but the material hardly lives up to its advance billing as "compelling community related TV."

"It's fluff," acknowledges one member of the Weeknight Edition team. "They don't like controversy around here."

Clarke's most controversial move at KUHT did not directly involve programming, but rather the staff bloodletting he carried out on April 28, 1994.

The atmosphere rapidly darkened inside the Channel 8 offices that sunny spring morning. Broadcast production chief Korshak was headed into Clarke's office to fine-tune a budget proposal when she encountered a gray-faced Yvonne Menuet, the station's development director, going in the opposite direction. Korshak was seconds away from being "reduced in force," as the university termed it in a press release later in the day.

"Instead of having the budget discussion, Jeff pulls his chair around, as they teach you in management school, and said, 'Well, I've got some bad news for you,' " Korshak recalls with a laugh. Layoff talk had been in the air at KUHT for months, and Korshak says she was planning to leave the station because of her concerns over its changing direction. But she hadn't planned to depart that soon.

"Yvonne is my age, and both of us had passed 55, which is early retirement," she says. Menuet, a recovered breast cancer patient, immediately wondered whether she would continue to receive health insurance. Clarke had told both women he could not help them with their benefits, "which was dead-out wrong, as it turned out," remembers Korshak, who says that she and others were not offered early retirement, a common corporate courtesy before layoffs.

The callous handling of the layoffs contrasted sharply with the university's generous golden parachutes provided to university president Jim Pickering, System chancellor Schilt and a host of other administrators ousted in the recent turnover of the school's bureaucracy.

"Hindsight is always 20-20," says Clarke. "There's little doubt that having it to do over again, it might have been done a better way. We did it under the guidelines that we had and the restrictions we had and the manner in which we were allowed to do it. And we did the best we could."

Clarke did okay. After the layoffs, he received a $4,000 raise, which boosted his salary to $86,500 a year. A few other favored employees also received small raises.

A number of production staffers were waiting that morning in 1994 when Korshak came out of her meeting with Clarke, because she had been expected to announce the projects that had been approved for the coming year's budget. She said nothing, but Clarke's secretary began paging one person after another on the station's PA system, and word quickly spread that it was an invitation to the firing squad. The total reached a dozen, and it was over.

Clarke later promised the remaining staff that if there were any further layoffs, "I'll be the first to go."

Actually, two more producers with documentary experience, Sue Davis and Rick Canter, were laid off the following year. Davis, now an assignments editor at all-news Channel 51, produced several highly regarded documentaries during her tenure at Channel 8, including Shades of Truth, a riveting exploration of the fatal shooting of a black youth by an Asian storekeeper in southwest Houston.

Davis is currently being paid by Channel 8 as a consultant to edit a special on a conference of former world leaders held last year in Colorado Springs. ACT chair Patricia Laurent singles out that production, which is being funded by the conference organizers, as the premiere local offering the station plans for this year.

While UH System officials and Clarke told the media the layoffs were necessitated by a cash crunch, former manager Bauer says he left a financially stable operation that had never run a deficit. In fact, Bauer says he hoarded enough ACT contributions to build a $2 million contingency fund. He wonders how, in just three years, the station came to rest on the financial ropes.

Both Korshak and Menuet believe uncontrolled spending by Clarke on unbudgeted projects, such as a lavish music production at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, tapped the surplus. Menuet recalls several cases in which the development budget was raided by Clarke to cover deficits in his administrative budget.

Clarke blames the station's money crunch on an inflated staff budget he inherited when he took over, along with the same harsh economic environment that forced other public television stations to retrench early in this decade. As for administrative overspending, he says that funding shifts within the budget may make it appear that his expenditures went up in the last several years, but audits confirm that the station is spending less in that area. In fact, he says the current year will show a small operating surplus.

Whatever caused the financial hemorrhaging that led to the layoffs, the decline was swift. In 1991, Channel 8's budget included nearly $3 million in short-term investments listed among its operating fund assets. By 1993, the figure had dropped to $1.3 million. By 1994, the investments had been totally liquidated, with nearly $1.2 million transferred to cash on hand. At the same time, the decline in community support, which was cited as the culprit for the station's financial troubles, actually seemed inconsequential. Public contributions to the station totaled $4.3 million in 1991; three years later, the total had slipped to just $4.2 million.

In a series of memos in 1994, Ed Whalen, then the System's vice chancellor for finance and administration, warned fellow administrators that Channel 8 was headed into the red. Consistently over-optimistic revenue projections by Clarke had left Whalen alarmed.

"Income to date is about $2.5 million, an inflow of $416,000 a month," Whalen wrote in one pungent missive to Felder, the UH administrator who supervised station operations. "To meet Jeff's target of $5.6 million for the year, the money is going to have to start coming in at a rate of $517,000 a month. Once again: how's it going to happen?" In the same memo, Whalen noted that the station would be receiving another bill it could ill afford: the university had decided to start charging KUHT $20,000 a month for electrical services it previously had provided for free.

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.

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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