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Pax TV wants to be on the air in Pittsburgh, not up in the air

Thursday, July 15, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

"Dr. Quinn" fans aren't the only ones eager for Pax TV to arrive in Pittsburgh. It goes without saying WQED wants Pax TV so it can unload WQEX in a complicated deal that also involves religious broadcaster Cornerstone TeleVision's WPCB. The deal has been held up since 1997 by the FCC. The government agency has yet to announce whether it will allow the proposed plan to go forward.

Often lost in the fray is Pax TV itself, which would come into town as WKPX, Channel 40 (WPCB would move to Channel 16).

Pax president and CEO Jeff Sagansky wants his network here, too.

"It's very important because it's a Top 20 market," Sagansky said in a phone interview Tuesday. "As of this fall, it will be the only Top 20 market we don't broadcast in; it'll be the only Top 75 market we're not in on broadcast or cable."

At this point the only Pittsburgh-area viewers who can see Pax are those with satellite dishes who subscribe to EchoStar's DISH Network.

In some cities where stations are unavailable, including Baltimore and Cincinnati, Pax has made deals with local cable companies to carry the channel. Sagansky said Pax prefers broadcast stations, but if the FCC turns down the WQED deal, that may be the network's only option.

"I'd think we'd have to, but I don't even want to contemplate that alternative," Sagansky said. "When you go to cable, that means 40 percent of the market can't see you."

In Pittsburgh, the 19th largest TV market, it would only be 20 percent, since cable has about an 80 percent penetration rate.

Lowell "Bud" Paxson, co-founder of the Home Shopping Network, has said he was called by God to create Pax TV. He bought up independent TV stations across the country, signed on affiliates and cobbled together a network.

Family-friendly reruns of "Touched by an Angel" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" were the cornerstone of Pax TV's launch last August, but the network has since expanded into original series, including "Little Men," based on the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and "It's a Miracle," true stories hosted by Richard Thomas ("The Waltons").

In August, the network will launch more new shows, including "Twice in a Lifetime," a drama from the executive producer of "Cagney & Lacey" about a guardian angel who gives guest stars (played by known actors like Corbin Bernsen, Kate Jackson, etc.) a second chance in life.

"Chicken Soup for the Soul" features recognizable actors in short stories drawn from the famous book series.

"Hope Island" is an American remake of the Brit hit "Ballykissangel," which itself seemed inspired by "Northern Exposure," a series Sagansky put on the air as CBS entertainment chief in the late 1980s.

"I bought 'Northern Exposure' the first month I was there," Sagansky said. "['Hope Island'] is more dramatic in tone, but the spirituality and offbeat sense of humor are there."

"Hope Island" follows a pastor (not a Catholic priest as in "Ballyk") to a parish on an island off the coast of Seattle where he ministers to a town of quirky, colorful characters.

"You're asked to fall in love with a whole town of characters, and that's something you won't see on network television because they regard it as too soft," Sagansky said.

The dearth of family programming on ABC, CBS and NBC surprises Sagansky, because he thinks there's an audience for shows that can be enjoyed by all family members.

"Every single network has one of these shows, and they all consider them flukes," he said. "The WB talks all about 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' but '7th Heaven' is their No. 1 show. 'Providence' is NBC's first hit in five years. CBS's No. 1 show is 'Touched by an Angel.' But those shows are few and far between, and we think they're making a big mistake."

Sagansky said there's a negative bias toward "programming built around values" because network executives don't get recognition within the industry for family shows. They get accolades for "being hip and cutting edge," Sagansky said.

There's also the issue of advertisers who covet young viewers. Family shows -- including many Pax TV programs -- skew older, but Sagansky said advertisers like family shows. He points to "7th Heaven" as an example of a family show that draws a young audience.

Pax TV's plans called for the network to average about 1 million TV households in prime time during its first year, and they're close.

"We get anywhere from 0.9 some weeks to a 1.0 [rating]," Sagansky said. "Our original programming will take us to the next level that will get us a 2.0."

One hit can make a network, an axiom proved by Fox's success with "The Simpsons" and The WB's meteoric rise after "Dawson's Creek."

"When people hear about a show, they make a point of finding you," Sagansky said. "I can't tell you what that show will be for us, but that's what we've got to do now."

That, and get on the air in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, July 15, 1999

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