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2 TV stations woo Paxson; WQED weighs options

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri and Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A pair of suitors have expressed interest in bringing Bud Paxson's family-oriented network, Pax TV, to Pittsburgh now that its deal to buy Channel 40 has collapsed.

Ron Bruno, owner of WBGN-TV, a group of 11 simulcasting low-power TV stations in Southwestern Pennsylvania plus stations near Wheeling and Steubenville, said, "We would welcome Bud Paxson with open arms."

Similarly, Nancy Hahn, owner of low-power WNEU-TV, said, "I am the obvious candidate" for Pax TV, which offers both original programs and reruns of such shows as "Touched by an Angel."

Bruno wasted no time after learning that Cornerstone TeleVision, the religious broadcaster that owns Channel 40, decided to back out of its deal to sell the station as part of a license swap. It would have taken over Channel 16, a noncommercial educational license owned by public broadcaster WQED.

"I called [Paxson's] attorneys the next morning and said, 'Remember, I'm here,'" Bruno said. "I could do very good things for Pax TV."

Hahn stressed her past working relationship with Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network. She carried Home Shopping programming on Channel 63 at one time and said she and Paxson "visited the issue" of Pax TV "a number of times."

WNEU was Pittsburgh's first low-power station, signing on in 1987. WBGN-TV, headquartered in Green Tree, debuted in 1994 as a Beaver County station then known primarily for broadcasting high-school football games.

As the title indicates, low-power stations are licensed to operate with weaker signals than traditional over-the-air stations, covering only a portion of the area that the bigger stations can reach.

WBGN has tried to overcome that handicap by putting together its own network of low-power stations in an area bounded by Mercer, Indiana, Fayette and Greene counties in Pennsylvania. The network also includes the Wheeling and Steubenville areas.

Several cable companies carry WBGN - including, starting Monday, AT&T Cable Services in Pittsburgh. That will boost the station's cable reach to 410,000 subscribers in the region, Bruno said.

His timing, it turns out, was good. Dan Garfinkel of AT&T Cable Services said WBGN got the last available outlet on the company's system, which precludes another Pax TV option. In some cities, it has been offered directly via cable rather than on a broadcast station.

As Paxson found himself being courted, WQED President George Miles said almost everything is on the table in light of the collapse of the deal that would have brought the organization $18 million.

Selling Pittsburgh magazine, an idea floated four years ago, is not an option. And neither, if Miles has his way, is suing Cornerstone for breach of contract.

Cornerstone's attorney, Elliot Davis, said the three-way agreement expired Dec. 31, so his client was free to walk away without penalty.

Cornerstone said that guidelines attached to a Federal Communications Commission decision approving the swap would have compromised its religious mission.

As Miles weighs his options, he said WQED - parent company of the two public broadcasting stations, WQED-FM and Pittsburgh magazine - is treading water.

"We really can't make the impact we need to make in this community. ... And the other thing is, we need a productive environment for our staff. I want to be able to attract top-notch staff."

In financial statements covering the first five months of WQED's fiscal year, the organization said its accumulated losses from previous years had narrowed slightly, to $5.6 million through November of last year from $5.8 million the same five months in 1998.

Still, not everything was rosy.

In addition to the accumulated losses, WQED operated in the red through November, with expenses exceeding operating revenue by $62,000.

Chief Administrative Officer Robert Petrilli noted that, despite the operating deficit, WQED was still well in the black, with revenues, including programming grants and other restricted funds, totaling $8.3 million through November, up from $6.7 million the previous year and well in excess of the station's $6.6 million in operating expenses.

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