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No More Cheap Lunch

Since then, the TV station has received five plaintive calls (as of Wednesday, May 7) from fans. But the station expects more, says WCVE public relations director Sarah Bartenstein, "when people realize this is not a temporary hiatus." The woman who handles viewer inquiries predicts that, around May 17, fans will turn out in droves "with torches and pitchforks, like villagers storming the castle."

Fans are only now becoming aware of its end, although Blue Ridge Public Television canceled the show in October. Local stations continued running episodes until April, when co-host Larry Bly informed Blue Ridge that he owned the copyright to the show and wanted compensation for its use.

Bly alleges the station had long wanted to get the show off the air, saying budget cuts are only "a politically correct way" to cancel the program. How would a station with an annual budget of almost $4 million prosper by getting rid of "Cookin' Cheap"? he asks. It cost $20,000 annually to produce, he says, and was "the only [Roanoke-created] show that ever went outside the city limits."

Yet "22 years is a really long time for a TV show to be on the air," says Sandy Broughton, communications director for Blue Ridge Public Television. Once carried by several public-television stations and syndicated on cable, "Cookin' Cheap" appeared on only three stations at the time of its demise, she says — in Roanoke, Richmond and Philadelphia.

Underwriters Kroger and NBC Bank ended their support in February 2002, Broughton says. State cuts of $288,000 in October, plus a $9 million charge for the FCC-mandated conversion to a digital signal, forced the station to cut "Cookin' Cheap," she says, along with two other locally produced shows. And the copyright dispute will probably discourage Blue Ridge from seeking to air any reruns, she says — "I think it'll end here."

The draw of the show was not the Southern-inspired dishes, which rarely turned out quite as planned, but rather the hosts, Bly and actor Doug Patterson, who joked and bickered as they concocted recipes side by side.

"Cookin' Cheap" never was a polished production. Sweater vests were worn. Sauce was spilled. Bly himself once called it "a right stupid program." But now, he laments, "What a shame something so many people loved so much and that caused so much laughter has turned into such a painful and unfunny affair." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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