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WQED cleared to sell WQEX

Long-sought FCC approval may still face challenges

Thursday, December 16, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri and Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Hello, Pax TV. Goodbye, WQEX.

    Related article:

District viewers a boon to NBC-owned PAX TV


For many Pittsburghers, WQEX has been as good as gone since November 1997, when it began airing the same lineup as WQED-TV. But the Federal Communications Commission yesterday gave WQED Pittsburgh permission, in essence, to sell Channel 16. It was a vote that will change the city's television landscape, closing one station, shifting another to a new home on the dial and ushering in a fledgling national player.

"It's been a long wait for the right result," B.J. Leber, WQED's vice president of community relations and corporate communications, said yesterday. WQED's President George Miles, who has made the sale a linchpin of his administration, was out of town and unavailable for comment.

However, opponents to the deal, who have been battling this for three years, say it's not over 'til it's over.

Linda Wambaugh, a coordinator of the Save Pittsburgh Public Television Campaign which lobbied against the plan, said she hadn't seen the decision yet. The group can ask the FCC to reconsider or approach the U.S. Court of Appeals.

"If this decision prevails in the long run, the real losers will be the viewing public," Wambaugh said. "In fact, we've already lost a great deal of the diverse public interest programming that used to air on WQEX since their simulcasting began."

The complicated plan, which became known as Plan B after the FCC said no to a 1996 request to sell the station outright, will:

Eliminate WQEX.

Permit Christian broadcaster WPCB to move from Channel 40 to Channel 16 and take over its educational, noncommercial license.

Let Paxson Communications Corp. buy Channel 40 for $35 million. That money will be split between WQED Pittsburgh, parent company of WQED-TV, WQED-FM and Pittsburgh Magazine, and Cornerstone TeleVision, which operates WPCB.

The new Paxson-operated Channel 40 is expected to have the call letters WKPX.

No one connected with the deal yesterday could predict how soon these changes might take place.

While the FCC said it had approved the agreement, it did not provide specifics. They will come in the actual order, a detailed document that will address the charges, complaints and concerns filed by opponents. Four of the five commissioners dissented on some matters yet to be disclosed.

The order, to be issued as early as next week, also will provide "additional guidance regarding the programming requirements applicable to all entities, including Cornerstone TeleVision Inc., that hold or seek to obtain a noncommercial educational license," the FCC said in an abbreviated news release.

Questions had been raised about whether Cornerstone's board of directors and its programming lineup were too narrow to qualify for the license. The Christian broadcaster always maintained it met the guidelines but opponents submitted videotapes of shows they found particularly troubling for an educational station.

Oleen Eagle, president of Cornerstone, called the FCC decision a relief. "We're pleased that the FCC has granted the assignment ... and we look forward to working out our future plans," she said.

One of the parties nudging the FCC to vote -- but not taking sides -- was U.S. Sen. John McCain, Republican presidential candidate. He did so as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

In a Nov. 17 letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard, McCain expressed concern about the agency's failure to act on the pending applications, filed in June 1997. He did not lobby on either side's behalf, but scolded Kennard: "The delay that has already occurred appears incompatible with the responsible execution of the Commission's statutory duties, and further delay would be unacceptable."

When McCain later saw that an agenda for a December FCC meeting did not include the Pittsburgh matter, he wrote another letter, dated last Friday. All five FCC commissioners responded Tuesday, with four of them reporting they had voted and one refusing to confirm whether she had.

Late yesterday afternoon, the FCC announced it had approved the deal.

The commissioners' letters of response to McCain, Wambaugh said, indicated how much pressure they were under from Congress and Patton Boggs, one of the most expensive and influential lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. WQED hired the law firm in July.

"It seems there was a lot of strong-arming going on," Wambaugh charged. "The FCC has been under attack by Congress, and that makes them particularly meek in serving the public interest. It also shows the result of a high-priced lobbying campaign. That's a big concern for folks interested in preserving noncommercial public broadcasting in the face of the corporate control of most media."

Jerry Starr, who spearheaded the opposition with Wambaugh, called the FCC decision a sad chapter in the decline of public broadcasting in America. "U.S. public broadcasting needs to be concerned with public service, not commerce."

Starr said he's written a book about the WQED battle, "Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting," which will be published by Boston's Beacon Press in May. Last month, he founded Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and serves as its executive director.

The Washington-based group is funded by George Soros's Open Society Institute and the Florence & John Schumann Foundation, whose president is PBS mainstay Bill Moyers. CIPB's goals include reforming "public broadcasting as a public trust, independent of corporate and government influence."

Starr said the Save Pittsburgh Public Television campaign will decide its next step regarding the WQEX sale after reviewing the FCC's reasoning, but he didn't sound optimistic. "Our understanding is this decision allows them to make the deal," Starr said.

Yesterday's news came none too soon for WQED or for Paxson, which launched its national network more than a year ago and wanted an outlet in Pittsburgh, the country's 20th largest TV market. Pax TV debuted in August 1998 and now airs original shows each night at 8 p.m., followed by reruns of "Touched By an Angel" and "Diagnosis Murder."

In August, the network added four original series, including an updated "Star Search" called "Destination Stardom." Other new series include: "Chicken Soup for the Soul," an anthology series that dramatizes inspirational stories, and "Hope Island," a "Northern Exposure"-like series about a minister on an island near Seattle.

Pax is a newcomer to television, but it's been four decades since WQEX went on the air to shoulder the load of classroom and home-instruction shows on sister station WQED. Although it was forced off the air for periods ranging from 18 months to 24 months, it developed a loyal audience for such local shows as "Cullen/Devlin" and the popular British comedies, some of which moved over to WQED.

The sale of Channel 16 has been on the radar screen for so long that some viewers assumed it was a done deal -- or gave up any hope they could stop it. WQEX ceased to exist as a separate entity in November 1997, when WQED began airing one lineup on Channels 13 and 16.

It wasn't that WQEX was losing money or was exorbitant to operate, because it wasn't. But WQED Pittsburgh was drowning in debt and Channel 16 -- if its license were converted to commercial -- could have fetched $50 million.

In April 1996, Congress made the sale of Channel 16 a possibility when it passed a provision in the federal budget allowing WQED to petition the FCC to change WQEX to a commercial license.

In June 1996, WQED formally asked the FCC to do just that. A month later, the FCC voted 4-0 to turn down WQED's request. The plan was presented the following year and approved yesterday.

Post-Gazette Staff Writer Sally Kalson contributed to this report.

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