Gary Cocola, the Valley's king of free TV, had a different plan for his life in 1963, 35 years before he would end up owning 11 television stations in Fresno, Bakersfield and Omaha, Neb.

"I wanted to be a game-show host," says Cocola, owner of Channel 43 and numerous other TV stations.

It wasn't as if Cocola awakened one morning with the burning desire to quiz strangers in exchange for money and prizes.
He has been fanatical about television since watching it blink to life here in 1953.
Cocola struggles with a mound of papers and envelopes that have been casually stacked inside a manila folder. Finally, he stops and slips a black-and-white print from a protective covering. It is a print of the test pattern of Fresno's first TV station - KMJ-TV Channel 24 (now KSEE) - that greeted TV viewers nearly 45 years ago.

"I would stare at it (the test pattern) for hours. That's how fascinated I was with television," he says.

Cocola went from staring at the tiny glowing tube to owning 11 television stations that feature programming from home shopping to pay-per-view music videos. Except for Channels 43 and 15, the stations are low power, reaching only a limited viewing area.
The music video programming comes as no shock to those who know Cocola. As a child, he would pretend to be a disc jockey broadcasting from his bedroom.
At 17, he got his big TV break when Al Radka picked him to be on his "Open House" TV show. The program aired from 5 to 6 p.m. weekdays on KFRE-TV (now KFSN). In 1962, Cocola took his music and TV show on the road, hosting TV dance programs based on "American Bandstand" here and in Bakersfield.
Cocola hosted the show "Anything Goes," from 1963 to 1964. At the mention of the weekday afternoon show, Cocola thumbs through the folder. He removes a small white envelope containing black-and-white photos.
One photo shows a dapper young man with a pompadour. He's smiling at a young blond woman in the seat next to him.

"That's me," Cocola says. He flashes the same huge smile as his younger version in the picture. "It really was 'anything goes.' We had bands on and students. I would bring in the latest record album and we would show the album cover while we played a track."

His local TV success convinced Cocola that being a game show host was the right move. He met with an agent in Los Angeles.

"The agent asked me where I wanted to be in my life at 40," Cocola says. "I had never thought about that. He told me this was a tough business and eventually I would only have myself as a commodity. Was I certain I was good enough to be doing this at 40 when all the new talent was trying to get started?"

Cocola returned to Fresno and considered his options. At 22, he could either chase a TV dream or go into the family farming business. He decided that while he couldn't predict where he would be in television at age 40, he knew where he would be in produce.
Cocola became so successful at the produce business, he eventually opened his own company - Cocola Fruit. He married Diane Dostinich in 1976, but he soon realized he wanted to return to broadcasting.
He even had a new idea. Although it would be five years before the launch of MTV, Cocola was certain music videos were a gold mine. He believed record companies would give away the videos as promotional material that could be aired with local commercials.
Cocola told his wife their options were to spend millions to buy an existing station or apply for a permit for a new channel through the Federal Communications Commission.
They decided to go for the new channel. Seven years and $350,000 later, Cocola had a permit to build Channel 59.

"I wish I had the permit here," Cocola says. "After all that work and all that money, they just gave me this 8-1/2 by 11 piece of paper."

That piece of paper became the foundation for Cocola's TV empire.
A few years after Channel 59 launched, Cocola and his wife divorced. His wife wanted Channel 59, so she bought out his half.
He used the money to launch local television stations Channels 66 (Home Shopping Network), 34 (MVT2), 43 (Fresno's Independent Station), 68 (Panda America Shopping Network), 4 (HTV-Hispanic Music Videos), 28 (Video Catalog Channel), plus Channels 36 (American Store Shopping Network) and 33 (Video Catalog Channel) in Bakersfield and 15 (WB Network) in Omaha, NE. There are two other stations pending for Fresno.
Recently, Cocola attention has been on refining Channel 43 by adding syndicated programs - such as "Extreme Wrestling" - to what was exclusively infomercials.

"We have done well with the infomercials, but I believe we aren't getting viewers who stay and watch. They click through until they see a product they want to buy. We want to give them a reason to watch."

Fresno Bee article by Rick Bentley
reprinted with permission