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FCC approves long-sought sale of WQEX

Friday, July 19, 2002

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

WQED Pittsburgh yesterday received long-sought permission to sell WQEX, its second television outlet, to a California broadcaster for $20 million.

 
 
Graphic:
A six-year odyssey

   
 

By year's end, WQEX could have a new name, owner and mission -- offering commercial rather than educational programming.

And WQED says it finally will have money to pay off its debt, switch its primary outlet, Channel 13, to digital broadcasting, make repairs to its Oakland headquarters and create a permanent local programming endowment.

"We can see the goal line from here," George Miles, president of WQED Pittsburgh, said yesterday afternoon after talking to his staff. "This is a big hurdle for us. ... Our staff was ecstatic."

The Federal Communications Commission gave WQED the go-ahead to sell Channel 16 to Diane Sutter, a Pittsburgh native who is president and chief executive officer of Shooting Star Broadcasting in Sherman Oaks, Calif. It was a decision that had been six years in the making.

Twice before WQED had petitioned the FCC to change WQEX to a commercial license, first in 1996, then again in 1997 Its initial request was denied, and the second died when the prospective buyer pulled out of the agreement because of FCC restrictions.

This time, the FCC vote was 3-1, with Chairman Michael K. Powell and Commissioners Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Kevin J. Martin approving the two-pronged deal and Commissioner Michael J. Copps dissenting.

In his dissent, Copps called public television stations the "jewels of our nation's broadcast system" and lamented: "With this decision, we not only facilitate the sale of one of those jewels; we do so in a way that is contrary to statute and contrary to the public interest."

If WQEX fades to black, it will mark the end of a broadcasting era. The FCC granted Channel 16 to WQED in November 1958 after it asked for a second outlet to expand its classroom and home-instruction service. WQEX went on the air as a noncommercial station in September 1959.

Still unknown is whether groups that have battled to keep WQEX a noncommercial, educational station will ask the FCC to reconsider or go to a federal appeals court to try to stop the deal. Parties have 30 days from the date the order is published in the Federal Register to file for reconsideration or review.

If the Alliance for Progressive Action and Pittsburgh Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, the groups that opposed the sale, do not contest the sale -- or lose the battle -- Sutter could take over by year's end. She would become a broadcasting rarity, a woman owning a commercial TV station.

Sutter declined to reveal what the station's call letters and lineup will be or how many employees she will hire, but she promised to lay out her plans soon. She has not announced the names of her financial backers.

The $20 million payment will break down this way: At closing, $17.5 million would be paid in cash and $2.5 million in interest-bearing notes, payable in seven years.

Asked if she plans to provide a home for Pax TV, which bought its way onto local cable systems last year, Sutter said "there are some things in the Pax programming that would be very good programs for Pittsburgh, but they already have an outlet."

Sutter, whose family still lives in Pittsburgh, once ran radio stations WWSW-AM and FM here. She surfaced as the station's buyer in January 2001 although she had first expressed interest years ago.

The 51-year-old said she has been receiving suggestions on what could air on a reformatted Channel 16.

"Since Pittsburgh has fewer commercial stations than most of the other markets even smaller than it, I think this is a great opportunity" to expand the options for viewers, she said.

The FCC gave the following "unique and compelling" reasons for approving the sale of Channel 16:

While WQED Pittsburgh has reduced its outstanding debt to approximately $9 million and cut costs since the initial filing in 1996, "the record shows that QED remains in severe financial distress."

Because of its financial woes, WQED has "diminished ability to provide service to the people of Pittsburgh," and would be hamstrung in its transition to digital technology.

WQED has promised that as a result of the sale it would offer four streams of programming including the PBS feed, plus educational programs and shows addressing minority issues and public affairs.

A declining population, reduced contributions by viewers and comments from local business and community leaders provide evidence that Pittsburgh can no longer support two donor-reliant noncommercial educational stations.

Pittsburgh would benefit from the addition of another commercial station, noting that its seven existing for-profit channels are fewer than can be found in markets of comparable size.

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