Pax TV, the nation's seventh television network, may finally hit Pittsburgh via AT&T Cable Services in early July. Until now, only Pittsburgh satellite TV subscribers could see Pax TV.
Dan Garfinkel, regional director of communications for AT&T Cable Services, said Pax TV will offer viewers another family channel in place of WQEX, which simulcasts sister station WQED's lineup. Pax TV executives could not be reached for comment.
Originally Pax TV had hoped to enter the market on a broadcast station as part of a three-way deal involving WQEX and Cornerstone TeleVision's WPCB. When that deal collapsed in January, getting onto cable became Pax TV's best option.
Garfinkel said FCC rules allow AT&T to drop a station like WQEX if it "substantially duplicates" programming. If WQEX ceases to simulcast with WQED someday, AT&T will be obligated to find a new place for WQEX.
That move doesn't sit well with executives at WQED Pittsburgh.
"We would really like to maintain the spot on the cable lineup for 'QEX because we've said all along the simulcast is temporary," said B.J. Leber, WQED Pittsburgh's executive director of communications. The stations have been simulcasting since November 1997.
WQED general counsel Jacqui Thomas said she intended to send a letter to AT&T today citing other FCC regulations that Thomas said require AT&T to continue carrying WQEX.
Garfinkel had no comment on the letter since he had not yet received it.
Assuming Pax TV arrives as scheduled on July 5, it will air on Channel 4 on most of AT&T's suburban Pittsburgh cable systems. In the city, the network will broadcast on Channel 22/24b, replacing WQEX. Exceptions include Canonsburg and Coraopolis, where Pax will air on Channel 11.
Pax will debut one day later, July 6, in Washington, McKeesport and Penn Hills on Channel 4. In locations where Pax takes up residence on Channel 4, WPCB will move to Channel 5, the current home of WQEX.
So far Pax has not reached agreements to be carried by Adelphia, Armstrong or other local cable companies.
Pax TV, which bills itself as a family-friendly network, went on the air in 1998 as a network of stations cobbled together by Home Shopping Network co-founder Lowell "Bud" Paxson, who said he was called by God to create Pax.
Last September, NBC bought 32 percent of Pax and has the option to take over the fledgling network in 2002. Already NBC has started rebroadcasting some of its programs on Pax, including the game show "Twenty One."
NBC angered its affiliates when it announced "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" would air on Pax TV stations an hour after it aired on most NBC affiliates. NBC quickly reversed itself and the deal is dead for now.
Pax is implementing a plan that would have NBC affiliates sell advertising for Pax stations. WPXI general manager John Howell said he was part of a teleconference with Bud Paxson May 11 and talks are continuing.
"They'd like to have us sell [commercials] for them and have a local news presence," Howell said. "[Paxson] thinks that's really important to their business plan. We're still waiting for the contract."
Howell said he'd have concerns if NBC tries to put "Nightly News" on the local Pax station, but he wasn't concerned about WPXI news programs on Pax drawing viewers away from WPXI's cable channel.
"PCNC really serves a niche that's a little different," Howell said. "We're not sure what would go on Paxson's station. I would truthfully be quite concerned if it was an over-the-air station. Usually Pax takes a station no one knows about and makes it into something and ultimately NBC controls it in the market. Being a cable station makes it a lot less worrisome."
Pittsburgh, as market No. 20, is the largest television market Pax TV has gotten into via cable. Pax also airs over cable in Baltimore, Charlotte and Cincinnati, according to the network's 1999 press binder.
Tracy Hollingsworth, a spokeswoman at AT&T's Cable's corporate headquarters in Denver, would not disclose the terms of the deal with Paxson, but in other markets Paxson reportedly has paid between $3 and $10 per subscriber to get on cable systems.
With 532,000 subscribers to the local AT&T systems Pax is buying its way onto, that could mean as much as $5.3 million to AT&T.
Pax TV announced a new fall prime-time schedule last month that puts original series at 8 p.m. weeknights, with "Touched By an Angel" reruns at 9 p.m. and "Diagnosis Murder" reruns at 10 p.m.
Original series will include "Mysterious Ways" (Adrian Pasdar and Rae Dawn Chong as "X-Files"-like investigators), "The Rumfords" (computer-animated characters live among flesh-and-blood humans) and the mid-season drama "Doc" (Billy Ray Cyrus as a Montana doctor who moves to Manhattan).
Current series include "Twice in a Lifetime" (new characters each week get a second chance), "It's a Miracle" (Richard Thomas hosts true stories of answered prayers, medical miracles, etc.) and "Treasures in Your Home" (similar to PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" or FX's canceled show about collectibles).
Reruns airing weekday afternoons on Pax include "Big Valley," "Bonanza," "Promised Land," and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." Infomericals air weekday mornings and most of the day on weekends.
At its recent presentation to advertisers in New York, Pax TV also announced production will soon begin on three new movies based on the book and canceled CBS series "Christy." An actress is being sought to replace Kellie Martin, who played the title role in CBS's 1994-1995 version of "Christy."