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Small vs. Smaller

[whitespace] Los Gatos/Saratoga--The David-and-Goliath story would have contained a different kind of moral if scrappy little David had gone home and started pushing his baby brother around after braining the Philistine giant with his slingshot. Television station KICU, a scrappy independent local broadcaster, appears to be behaving like just such a little bully.

Last March, independent broadcasters like KICU won an important victory when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law requiring cable companies to carry any local station that is already on the airwaves. A clause in the Supes' ruling ensured that the broadcasters would also get to pick their channels, provided another broadcaster wasn't there already. This was to make sure small stations wouldn't be relegated to the upper-no-man's-land of Channel 93.

It was a big win for the little Davids of television. But the TV food chain doesn't bottom out with local broadcasters.

Many public access stations, like KSAR and KCAT, don't have the money to broadcast, so they contract with local cable companies to get their programs into people's living rooms. That's how these two stations both appear on Channel 6 in the Los Gatos and Saratoga franchises of TCI Cablevision, together reaching about 18,000 people.

Positioned between CBS on 5 and ABC on 7, Channel 6 is an airwave paved with gold. That's why KICU wants to move there--the station is on Channel 8 in Saratoga and Los Gatos, but on Channel 6 almost everywhere else in the Bay Area.

"It's important to have a uniform identity over a large area, because it's hard for us to promote ourselves when we're scattered," KICU Vice President Bill Beeman told a Los Gatos Weekly Times reporter several weeks ago.

But George Sampson, KCAT's general manager, is afraid KCAT will lose viewership if it's bumped to another channel. He thinks there's an issue of public service at stake, and he believes TCI, as a good corporate citizen, ought to do what's best for the town.

"Let's put it this way," he says. "We've been on Channel 6 for over a decade. People know we're here. If we get put out in Siberia" --meaning one of the higher channels--"people will have trouble finding us. We just don't have the kind of money it would take to launch a campaign to let people know we'd moved."

Sampson says KCAT--which airs shows about local history, animal rights, cooking, and one in Farsi for the area's Persian community--serves needs that are close to the hearts of locals. "We want it to be a community resource," he says. "I want it to serve some of the unserved populations, like senior citizens and young people. Every year we show the Christmas parade in its entirety, so every little kid dressed up like an Indian can see himself on TV."

Saratoga's KSAR airs city council meetings and produces seven programs in its studio at West Valley College. It also currently offers West Valley telecourses, though those will soon be moved to another station.

San Jose's KICU's evening offering is a low-fiber diet of "Family Matters," two episodes of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "The Cosby Show," a two-hour movie, and two episodes of "Mama's Family." (One recent movie aired on KICU reflected local concerns: It starred Brooke Shields as a Silicon Valley engineer stalked by a creepy co-worker, played by Walton-gone-bad Richard Thomas.)

TCI spokesman Andrew Johnson says TCI has no say, especially since the Supreme Court's ruling last year. "Obviously, we have federal law hanging over our heads," he says. "And there's no special protection for local access channels."

"I understand their frustration," he says of the public-access folks. "And we're just as frustrated, frankly." He says the two stations will likely be moved to Channel 8 rather than Channel 68, and that if the stations have problems with the upcoming switch--vaguely scheduled for sometime in 1999--that they should take it to the city fathers, who ultimately fund and run the public access programs.

Johnson also praises KICU's kindness in the matter. "KICU is being very gracious," he notes. "Never have they told us, 'Make this change by this date,' even though they were well within their rights to do so.'"
Traci Hukill

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