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Tuned In: Inaction by FCC holds Pax and WQED hostage

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

To the FCC:I want my Pax TV! Even though I'm unlikely to watch it much (a single 27-year-old guy is not Pax TV's target audience), the idea of living in a city that doesn't have all the broadcast networks gives me hives. Without Pax TV it's like I'm living in a town that's not whole.

Rob Owen 

If you're a football fan, think of it this way: For a TV nut, a city without Pax TV is like a city without an NFL franchise.

Now you understand.

The arrival of Pax TV is tied to the FCC approval of the sale of WQEX. Under that scenario, WQED gets money to pay off its debts, Cornerstone TeleVision's WPCB moves from Channel 40 to Channel 16 (the old WQEX) and Pax TV takes over Channel 40.

Sounds easy, right? The sticking point is that WQEX is licensed to be an educational, noncommercial channel. Cornerstone's lineup of programming is decidedly Christian, and a cadre of community activists is pushing the FCC to block the sale.

Although they certainly have a point that Cornerstone's programming doesn't fall under the purview of an educational license, the FCC essentially forced this plan in 1996 by not allowing a change of license for WQEX and sale of the station outright.

Not that Pax would be educational either, but I've heard from many more viewers concerned about seeing "Dr. Quinn" reruns on Pax TV than people bemoaning the lack of educational programming on the air locally.

Plus, Pax TV could do quite well here, given Pittsburgh's demographics, which point to a higher percentage of older residents. Pax TV plays to that audience with such family oriented dramas as "Touched by an Angel," "Highway to Heaven" and "Diagnosis Murder." In time, Pax might even drain viewers from KDKA, since much of the Pax lineup consists of CBS reruns.

Frankly, I don't care how Pax TV gets here; I just want the network available to Pittsburgh viewers. We've already missed Pax's original series "Little Men," and there's talk of Pax creating an American version of the Brit hit "Ballykissangel." I don't know that either of these are quality shows (and why the world needs an Americanized "Ballykissangel" is beyond me), but I want Pittsburgh viewers to have Pax TV as an option. To me it's a matter of choice.

The failure of the FCC to act already has cost several local Pax employees their jobs. One quit out of frustration, two were laid off and another will be out of work at the end of this week.

The station has quit renting a satellite dish that had no use because Pax isn't on the air, and parts from the control room built inside WQED (where Pax TV rents space for its Pittsburgh operation) have been removed and shipped to other Pax stations that can use them.

Even general manager Alan Frank has been doing work at other Pax TV stations in Boston and Washington, because there's not much to be done here until the FCC makes a decision about the pending deal.

The failure of the FCC to act also holds WQED hostage. The station wants to create a local newsmagazine show, but says its plans can't move forward until the FCC rules one way or the other.

The FCC commissioners need to quit lollygagging and do something. Approve the sale of WQEX or don't approve the sale. Just find a way to get Pax TV into the Pittsburgh market, whether it means changing a station license from educational to commercial or - better yet - carving out a whole new channel.

This is still a Top 20 television market. But without Pax TV, Pittsburgh looks a lot less important than its enviable position indicates.

NEW ANCHOR AT WPXI: After almost a year without a permanent co-anchor for its morning and noon newscasts, Channel 11 announced the hiring of Newlin Archinal, currently a morning anchor at WTVR, the CBS affiliate in Richmond, Va.

Archinal will join Bob Bruce and C.S. Keys in the morning beginning sometime the week of March 22, and at noon later in the year. She replaces Della Crews, who left the station last April after a contract dispute.

Archinal is the second WTVR escapee to come to Pittsburgh. Meteorologist Mike Stone left the station last year and joined WTAE.

"CRACKER" RETURNS: ABC canceled last season's Americanized version of the British mystery series "Cracker" (starring Robert Pastorelli), but A&E will air 16 episodes, including four ABC never broadcast.

The two-part American "Cracker" pilot will air at 10 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23, followed by the two-part British finale (starring Robbie Coltrane) Feb. 24 and 25 at 10 p.m.

"The Club," a never-broadcast American episode, airs Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. Additional American episodes will air on consecutive Fridays at 10 p.m. beginning March 5.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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