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WQEX likely to attract more suitors

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

By Patricia Sabatini and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

No one was popping champagne -- or packing bags -- yesterday in Pittsburgh after the Federal Communications Commission's loosening of media ownership rules.

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It's thought that the changes could benefit WQED Multimedia's efforts to sell Channel 16, but for the most part, the city's TV landscape isn't expected to change much.

For one thing, said Gary Cozen, vice president and general manager at CBS-affiliate KDKA-TV, media companies are expected to focus on snapping up stations in much bigger TV markets than Pittsburgh, the nation's 21st largest.

"It's more advantageous to have concentration in the biggest markets possible . . . and there are still plenty of holes in the top markets," he said.

New York-based Viacom, for example, which owns KDKA along with the UPN affiliate WNPA in Pittsburgh, would love to pick up a station in the Washington, D.C., region, the country's eighth-largest market, where it currently doesn't have a presence, Cozen said.

If Viacom wanted to add a station in Pittsburgh, it would have to sell one of the two it already owns since even under the new rules broadcasters would still be limited to owning a maximum of two TV stations in all but the largest markets.

Cozen said the major broadcast station owners in Pittsburgh -- Viacom, Hearst-Argyle Television (parent of ABC-affiliate WTAE) and Cox Broadcasting (owner of NBC affiliate WPXI) -- are considered to be long-term players in the television business and interested in acquiring as opposed to selling.

The new rules could expand the pool of suitors for WQEX, the sister station to WQED that has been in play for seven years. It has come close to being sold a couple of times, but the deals always have fallen through, either because of strings attached by the FCC or a change in how much cash would be handed over at closing.

The FCC changes "clearly opens [the bidding process] up to a few more potential buyers," said George Miles, president of WQED Multimedia.

WQED received long-awaited permission from the FCC in October to convert Channel 16's license from non-commercial/educational to commercial, but was waiting to see what the FCC was going to do. Miles said he has been talking to three potential buyers during recent months but declined to be specific about a timetable for a deal.

"If I've learned anything from anybody, it's that these things take on a life of their own. No deal happens before its time."

Ron Bruno, owner of independent low-power station WBGN, which isn't affected by the changes, said the cross-ownership provision is especially troublesome. As someone who gets news from multiple sources -- newspapers, radio, Internet and television -- Bruno said he doesn't want to see the same voice represented by most of those outlets.

"I almost equate that to when you watch the national news and there's only one photographer at a story," and you see that same view over and over, rather than getting different takes on an event.

The FCC action isn't likely to affect operations at the Post-Gazette, according to Allan Block, managing director of the family-run Block Communications Inc., owner of the region's dominant newspaper.

"I don't think the synergies between owning a daily newspaper and TV broadcast station are that great," Block said, discounting the possibility that the company would buy a television station in Pittsburgh.

"I don't think [the new rules] mean much for Block Communications or the Post-Gazette," he said, "although I should keep an open mind and we should look at the situation after the dust settles."

Block said BCI wasn't interested in selling the Post-Gazette.

Edward H. Harrell, the president of the Greensburg Tribune-Review, the area's second-largest daily newspaper, didn't return a telephone call yesterday seeking comment.

Patricia Sabatini can be reached at psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066. Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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