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It may be too late to get this on the Christmas wish list. Still, one hopes Santa brings Buffalo's low-power TV station a little marketing ingenuity and enough cash to stay alive until that ingenuity pays off.

Channel 58 currently is being managed by Medaille College, but it could well be off the air come Jan. 1, when its contract with the school ends. It seems the station hasn't been able to sell enough advertising for its fare of mostly government- and public-interest programming.

Advertising is the lifeblood of television. Without it, no station can survive.

Given its hidden potential as an instrument of reform, it would be a shame to lose Channel 58. But maybe the area won't have to if the Ralph Nader-backed group that put it on the air will just learn from its network competition and promote it better. The market is there.

Take a look at the weekly Nielsen listings for the network-affiliated channels, and what do you see? Comedies dominate the ratings.

Now take a look at Channel 58's program listings, and what do you see? Common Council meetings, the Erie County Legislature and the Buffalo School Board.

Could the answer be more obvious? It's a marriage made in heaven: high-quality situation comedy week after week, and a station to pipe it right into the homes of viewer-constituents.

Who wouldn't laugh while watching the County Legislature pass a budget with revenues from Rich Stadium football games that might never be held? Or while watching Democrats shout down Republican amendments and then pass a budget with a sales tax that has yet to get the requisite Republican support?

Hopefully, Channel 58 will be on the air come February. That's when Majority Leader Len Lenihan tries to wriggle out of that jam, while Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath -- knowing she won't need most county services -- has her political henchmen push Erie County to the brink of fiscal disaster. That's TV worth watching.

Or what could be funnier than seeing Council President George Arthur -- who sensibly favors a gun amnesty program -- turn around and say he won't support letting bankers fund it for the cash-strapped city? He's afraid they're trying to stay in good with Mayor Griffin.

This is vintage City Hall squabbling. The promos could bill it as one of those time-travel shows, the kind in which the lead character gets stuck in a different year each week. Except in this case, the year would always be 1985 -- the year Arthur lost the mayor's race to Griffin.

And who wouldn't be royally entertained by city School Board meetings, which have sometimes been so raucous the state had to send monitors here to try get board members to behave? Watching members like John Doyle micro-manage the district and get jobs for campaign aides, or James Comerford argue against sex education while his own kids get it in private school, should make residents laugh until they cry.

But, of course, entertainment would just be Channel 58's marketing angle. Its real value would be in showing people exactly how government works, in these and other instances. In the process, it has the power to make government work better, as most things do when a little light -- even a klieg light -- is shone on them.

While critics lament television's impact as hypnotic, in-home babysitter, in this case it could have the reverse effect, making those on the tube stop behaving like children. If this area's elected officials knew more than just their families, friends and lobbyists were watching all of the silliness that goes on, they couldn't help but act more responsibly.

At the same time, if more people saw the level of discourse, it might well eliminate whatever aura still remains about government officials. (You didn't think the Council and Legislature meet while people are at work by accident, did you?)

Even on tape delay, Channel 58 could play the role of Toto, pulling back the curtain each night to reveal that the great and powerful Oz is actually just the schmo next door. That could easily encourage more earnest, intelligent citizens to challenge incumbents at election time.

Such a watchdog is too valuable to silence. Here's hoping Channel 58 finds an angel to keep it on the air -- and gets the audience local government deserves.

ROD WATSON is an editorial writer for The News.

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