Current Online

Merger is among options for New York City public TV stations

Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 2001
By Steve Behrens

Three public TV stations serving the New York City area, which agreed last year to share a digital master control facility, have moved on to consider broader forms of combination.

Board leaders of rival stations WNET and WLIW have held talks, and city school system Chancellor Harold O. Levy has proposed that the city hire WNET to operate its little-watched, Brooklyn-based WNYE-TV as an educational service. On the radio side, the school system is also talking with independent nonprofit WNYC-FM about running WNYE-FM.

CPB, which awarded planning grants over the last five years to encourage the talks, has set aside and begun spending $2,030,000 on studies and hardware for consolidation, according to project officer David Clark.

In several smaller cities that have two public TV channels--Buffalo, Albany/Schenectady, Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh--pubcasting leaders have sold (or hope to sell) their extra channels for cash, but the New York City stations are planning to use them all.

"We are in a market of 20 million people," says Bill Baker, president of the largest of the stations, WNET. "That's almost the size of Canada. We think that you can't have enough capacity as a public-service broadcaster."

"This city's big enough to deal with all of that," says Terrel Cass, president of Long Island-based WLIW. After conversion to digital, the three channels will be able to carry 12 or more separate streams of programming. "That's almost a cable system," says Cass.

The three stations agreed months ago to share WNET's new digital master-control facility near Pennsylvania Station. Baker said he's "very hopeful" that plans will go through. The stations have yet to seek blessing for the plan from the union that reps technicians at WNET and WLIW, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Cass said.

News of the merger talks leaked into the local press early this month. WNET's board chairman, heavyweight financier Steven Rattner, approached WLIW's chairman, attorney Barry R. Shapiro, about further collaborations, and discussions have been going on for two months, according to Cass. Many options are under consideration, including complete merger, limited further collaborations on back-office functions, and an operating agreement that would maintain separate editorial decision-making, he said. The parties have agreed that the combined broadcaster would maintain or increase the level of Long Island programming and would keep studios and a transmitter on the island, Baker told Current.

Though WLIW still must raise $8 million of the expected $10 million cost of DTV conversion, the station still has the option of going its own way.

"We could still make a go of it," said Cass. "The economics are there, but we will be in a stronger position if we combine resources."

WNET is farther along in conversion. Baker would like to turn on its DTV transmitter within two months, in time for Easter. The station is ready with an arts program taped in high-definition, The Face: Jesus in Art, for which Baker served as executive producer. Its master control facilities are ready for DTV, and it has arranged for DTV antenna space atop the World Trade Center, where its analog antenna is mounted.

Merger talks in other cities have run aground when boards couldn't agree on their roles in the merged nonprofit, but Cass said he believes the governance issues are resolved.

In the case of WNYE-TV, Channel 25, the schools chancellor approached WNET to discuss "whether it would make sense for us to take on operation," Baker said.

Levy explained his thinking in an interview with the New York Times: "Right now, nobody watches [Channel] 25 or listens to the radio station. I want to have the stations turned into something that has a significant following and contributes to education, broadly defined."

The school board and WNET will have to face vocal opposition if they don't make plans including the foreign language programmers that now serve immigrant audiences through WNYE.

"Ethnic broadcasters are an issue that will have to be dealt with in a meaningful way to satisfy the ethnic community," Baker said.

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: CPB and consultants played matchmakers in a dozen cities to encourage collaborations among overlapping stations.

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