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Third try to sell WQEX may be charm

Friday, May 05, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In its efforts to rid itself of debt, WQED Pittsburgh has tried for four years to sell sister-station WQEX. Plan A failed. This winter Cornerstone TeleVision bailed out of Plan B. But Plan C may be on the horizon.

After yesterday's WQED board meeting, President George Miles acknowledged that he'd been approached by parties interested in buying WQEX but said no decisions had been made. He would not name those making inquiries or give a timetable when such a deal might be announced.

"We are looking at four to five different options right now, but I don't know where we're going to end up," Miles said. "There are a number of people interested in acquiring the title to WQEX."

Another option may be to retain the station, Miles said. Because WQEX has a noncommercial/educational license, any buyer would likely have to meet FCC requirements for such stations.

One option Miles dismisses is a revived deal with Cornerstone. In recent weeks Mark Dreistadt, Cornerstone vice president of administration and finance, testified before a congressional subcommittee in support of legislation that would prevent the FCC from imposing limits on religious broadcasters with noncommercial licenses.

In December, the FCC approved the sale of WQEX, which would have put Cornerstone's WPCB on Channel 16, but the FCC included "additional guidance" that the Christian broadcaster rejected.

Miles said the deal with Cornerstone was "in my rear view mirror."

WQED viewers may be affected more immediately by the station's plan to participate in a PBS pilot study of a new prime-time schedule. This may include shifting touchstone programs -- "Masterpiece Theatre," "Mystery!" -- to new days and time slots. Miles said WQED and six other PBS stations will take part in the test starting this fall and running through spring 2001.

"We're willing to look at change," Miles said. "We've got to open ourselves, like any other business, and take a look at our different options. If we don't do that, we'll find ourselves doing the same things for 45 years, and we're going to become extinct."

Locally, Miles acknowledged the station had received complaints about the shifting of "The Nightly Business Report" from an evening time slot to 11 p.m. and sometimes later. Miles said the move was made because station executives thought there would be more logical audience flow from "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to WQED-produced "On Q" than from "Business Report" to "On Q."

"A lot of people are concerned, and we're going to be responsive to that," Miles said. But no time slot changes are expected until summer at the earliest.

WQED-produced shows go on hiatus in the summer, but "On Q" executive producer Deb Acklin said her program would go on a modified hiatus. She expects to continue two live "On Q" broadcasts each week with three repeats starting June 16. Five-day-a-week live "On Q" programs will resume Sept. 11.

Since its last board meeting, WQED has come to terms with PBS, its largest creditor. The station owes PBS $1.9 million in programming fees. WQED has pledged to pay PBS $550,000 by the end of June. Additional debt will be paid going forward at an 8.75 percent interest rate.

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