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TV News: FCC recants on religious programming

Saturday, January 29, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission struck down its guidelines for religious broadcasters with noncommercial educational licenses.

Those guidelines were included in last month's ruling that approved WQED Pittsburgh's sale of WQEX, the transfer of Cornerstone TeleVision's WPCB from Channel 40 (a commercial license) to Channel 16 (a noncommercial educational license) and the entrance of Pax TV into the market on Channel 40.

The three-way deal was intended to be a way for WQED to pull itself out of debt, with WQED and WPCB splitting the $35 million family friendly Pax TV intended to pay to purchase WPCB's spot on the dial.

Cornerstone pulled out of the deal last week because it deemed the FCC's "additional guidance" damaging to its religious mission. The FCC guidance stated at least 50 percent of programming on a noncommercial educational station must be "generally educational" in nature. Programs devoted to "religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held beliefs" would not qualify, nor would most church services.

B.J. Leber, WQED executive director of communications and outreach, said she was heartened by the FCC decision.

"It sounds like great news," she said. "We look forward to meeting with the other parties to see where it goes from here."

It may go nowhere.

Cornerstone vice president of administration and finance Mark Dreistadt said the company had no plans to re-enter the deal.

"We believe the FCC, in issuing these additional guidelines, revealed an inherent bias as it affects religious broadcasters with respect to noncommercial educational television channels," Dreistadt said. "The fact that they would simply remove the additional guidance language does not change the inherent bias; it just removes the language."

Dreistadt said WPCB remains concerned about what rules the FCC might create in the future.

"We feel at this point the risk is too significant," Dreistadt said. "Unless and until we have a strong assurance from the FCC that religious programmers would not be subject to scrutiny or our license would not be subject to any level of peril, we're not entertaining even conversations toward entering into the agreement."

Last week, Cornerstone president Oleen Eagle also said removing the additional guidelines would not be enough to get Cornerstone back on board.

"We just feel the climate at the FCC right now is hostile to our needs," Eagle said. "We can't take the risk of losing our license later because of something they don't approve of."

Dreistadt said the station must raise funds by next week to pay for more than $1 million worth of Paxson equipment - transmitter, antenna, transmission line - that WPCB installed and is using.

"If we are not able to resolve outstanding equipment issues by Feb. 4, we will be subject to breach of contract, and we do not want that to happen," Dreistadt said. "There has been no legal action filed so far, but there are reasons to believe Paxson Communications may be entertaining thoughts of filing against Cornerstone TeleVision."

Jerry Starr, co-chair of Save Pittsburgh Public Television and executive director of the newly formed Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., said he and other opponents of the deal will remain vigilant.

"It would be a serious mistake for Cornerstone to assume that this adjustment in language, done out of concern for other stations, suddenly makes their [original] application acceptable," Starr said. "Their programming is still expected to be educational, it's still expected to serve the broader community, and if necessary we're still prepared to monitor them and report."

The FCC reconsidered and vacated the guidelines because "it has become clear that our actions have created less certainty rather than more, contrary to our intent."

"In hindsight, we see the difficulty of minting clear definitional parameters for 'educational, instructional or cultural' programming, particularly without the benefit of broad comment," the FCC statement said. "We will defer to the editorial judgment of the licensee unless such judgment is arbitrary or unreasonable."

Lowell "Bud" Paxson, chairman of Pax TV parent company Paxson Communications, issued a statement saying "the FCC did the right thing."

"I personally commend each of the commissioners that voted on changing the language," Paxson said. "This is a great day in America for the First Amendment and free speech."

U.S. Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, introduced the Religious Broadcasting Freedom Act in Congress this week in an effort to repeal the FCC's additional guidance. A press release from his office said 77 members of the House co-sponsored the Oxley bill.

In a statement, Oxley claimed "complete and total victory for free religious expression."

"Religious broadcasters and their listeners were a target for an FCC that sought to limit their freedom to express religious faith," Oxley said. "It was wrong, and I'm thrilled that the FCC has seen the error of its ways."

FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani dissented from the order, calling it "a sad and shameful day for the FCC."

"In vacating last month's 'additional guidance' on its own motion, without even waiting for reconsideration petitions to be filed, this supposedly independent agency has capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery," Tristani wrote. "At bottom, the additional guidance provided in last month's decision stood for one simple proposition: Not all religious-oriented programming will count toward the requirement that reserved television channels be devoted primarily to 'educational' use."

Tristani said the order takes the FCC to where it stood before the case began: "Programming on the reserved channels still must be primarily educational. Programming about religion may still qualify as educational, but not all religious programming will qualify. The only difference now is that neither licensees nor the public will have the benefit of specific guidance."

In a statement concurring with the FCC order, commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth agreed with the repeal, saying the FCC's Mass Media Bureau should not engage in program content review or programming quantification.

"The many and grave problems occasioned by direct review of religious programming for educational purpose were plainly perceptible when the Commission first set forth its 'additional guidance,' " wrote Furchtgott-Roth. "That is why I voted against it then, and why I vote to remove it from our books now."

Post-Gazette staff writer Caroline Abels contributed to this report.

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