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WQED sets sights on multimedia, educational, cultural future

Friday, March 17, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At yesterday's board meeting for WQED Pittsburgh the most pressing issue facing the organization was barely mentioned: What to do about WQEX now that the deal with Pax TV and Cornerstone TeleVision has fallen through.

"I've given up talking about WQEX for Lent," WQED President George Miles joked.

The fate of WQEX is no joke to those opposing its sale. For the first time in years, members of the Save Pittsburgh Public TV campaign attended the executive committee meeting and the board of directors meeting that followed.

"We just wanted to listen," said campaign leader Linda Wambaugh. "As members of the community, we're very interested in what's happening."

They were asked to leave the executive committee meeting during discussion of "personnel and proprietary matters," Wambaugh said, adding they heard no details of WQED's plans regarding sister station WQEX.

In the president's report to the board, Miles emphasized the need to make WQED known as a "local public multimedia company" and an "educational, informational, cultural organization."

To that end WQED announced plans for a content partnership with the Electronic Information Network, hosted by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. That deal includes enhancements to the WQED Web site, which will cross-index books and other library materials with television and radio programming. The eiNetwork will also provide technical support for the WQED Web site.

WQED also unveiled the Pittsburgh History Series Teacher's Guide (www.wqed.org/erc/pghist/), an online resource for middle and high school teachers. The site will include lesson plans, discussion questions and activities tagged to 12 programs from WQED producer Rick Sebak and one from WQED series host Chris Moore.

There are also plans for WQED to partner with Mt. Lebanon-based sightsound.com, which will be the Internet host site for WQED programs that viewers can pay to download.

Financially, WQED has more than $250,000 in excess revenue over expenses and member contributions are higher than they were a year ago at this time.

Foundation giving is down from $1.3 million a year ago to $48,000 this fiscal year, but $1.2 million of last year's foundation grants was earmarked for digital conversion. Miles said foundations are now more likely to give grants for specific programs than to fund station operations.

Station operations expenses are down by more than $200,000.

The WQED board of directors approved a plan allowing the station to invest $5 million that had previously been held as collateral for the station's loan with Mellon Bank.

WQED still owes $2.5 million to PBS for programming, and that debt may start to take a toll.

After the board meeting Miles said he had learned this week PBS is withholding $10,000 owed to WQED for the highly successful national broadcasts of "Doo Wop 50." He said it sets a bad precedent and he fears PBS may try to withhold funding for the sequel, "Doo Wop 51," scheduled to be filmed May 16-17 at the Benedum Center.

"That bothers me a lot," Miles said. "If they decide to start withholding monies from us on productions, we can't go out and front the project, so we're stuck."

Miles has said in the past he wanted all projects to be paid for up front to avoid incurring more debt. If PBS won't give WQED funding to make programs that bring in additional revenue, the station will have a hard time staying afloat, let alone paying down its debt, he said.

"They're saying, you can't do projects because you owe us money," Miles said. "We say, give us the money and that will help us get to the point where we can sustain ourselves and hopefully pay off a little bit [of the debt] at a time."

Miles plans discussions with PBS executives on future funding.

In other news:

WQED's community advisory board will meet March 27 at Washington and Jefferson College to get input from viewers in the Washington County area.

"Agewise" host Eleanor Schano will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania at the Golden Quill awards ceremony in the spring.

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