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Future dim for WQEX

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Tony Norman

I confess to having felt a bit smug when I heard about the collapse of the WQEX deal this week. Everything about it, from the way it was structured to the way WQED's board of directors ran roughshod for half a decade over the concerns of protesters who truly seemed to care about independent public broadcasting in Pittsburgh, offended my lefty sensibilities to no end.

Now that Cornerstone TeleVision has pulled out of an arrangement that would have compelled it to schedule programming the FCC considers a tad more ecumenical than "Biblical Portrait of a Marriage" and "The Baptist Hour," the extent of the public station's near-Faustian deal is clear to everyone, including (one hopes) WQED President George Miles.

After the FCC approved a plan last month that would have permitted Cornerstone's WPCB to relocate to Channel 16, WQEX's old spot, I could already hear the opera lady, the symbol of that elitist bastion called public television, gearing up for a rendition of "Precious Lord."

Paxson Communications, a family-values media corporation, was poised to buy WPCB's spot on Channel 40 for $35 million. Cornerstone and WQED planned to split the loot equally, giving Miles sufficient funds to wipe out WQED's $7 million debt, upgrade the station's Oakland headquarters and jump-start the PBS affiliate's switch to digital technology.

Who knows, QED's board of directors might even have had enough left over to fly Republican presidential aspirant John McCain in for a victory supper at the Duquesne Club.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the altar: Cornerstone looked at the situation, appraised the restrictions on what it would have been allowed to broadcast on the public's airwaves and bailed out.

Acting like the honest broadcasters they really are at heart, Cornerstone acknowledged that its mission and that of public television are essentially incompatible. In approving the deal, the government reminded the religious broadcaster that if it wanted the privilege of using an noncommercial educational license, it would have to answer to God and the FCC. Cornerstone said "No thanks."

Is there any way to make WQEX viable again now that the deal has collapsed? Beats me. I've got cable, so my thoughts have turned to broadband technologies and how the AOL/Time Warner merger is going to play itself out in my home. "Benny Hill" was a million years ago.

Because I've lost perspective, I called Clara Herron, a retired Post-Gazette reporter and a fan of public television, for her thoughts.

After several victory laps, Clara suggested that Mellon Bank forgive all of WQED's loans. "Giving $18 million to hockey [for naming rights to the Civic Arena] doesn't do anything for people who don't go to hockey games," she said. "I'm a senior citizen. I don't have cable. I depend on public television for cultural programming. Mellon should've forgiven the loans a long time ago."

Another friend, a cynical free-thinker, said:

"Who cares about George Miles? If they all dried up and blew away tomorrow, no one would even miss them. It would be like the Rapture. QED and QEX could disappear and the rest of us wouldn't even know they'd been here."

It looks like it's up to the watchdogs who led the Save Pittsburgh Public TV campaign over the years to remind us why we love and need WQEX. It's going to take some fast talking to get us to pull out the checkbooks again.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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