Autonomy, mutual benefit seen by new N.Y. partners
Originally published in Current,
Feb. 10, 2003
They will maintain separate on-air identities and production efforts, but two of the New York City area’s public TV stations completed their long-expected marriage Jan. 31.
WNET, a major production house for public TV with a budget of $180 million acquired the assets of WLIW, its feisty Long Island-based rival with a budget of $14 million.
WLIW President Terrel Cass has a five-year contract with EBC, retaining his title—now as head of a subsidiary company who reports to WNET President Bill Baker. Key WLIW execs including programmer Kent Steele also remain.
"We’re in it for the long term," Cass said in a joint interview with Baker. "I have three new bow ties," he joked, referring to Baker’s trademark neckwear.
Baker said Cass will have autonomy but also "the economic security and resources that he never had before." He credited a push from CPB and the openness of both stations’ boards for the legal combination, which represents the biggest success of CPB’s campaign for joint operations in multistation regions.
"What we did here is pretty much unprecedented," Cass said. "The important thing is that we will be able to cut costs" to a "substantial" degree, he said. WLIW’s membership chief, for example, will save a bundle by using WNET’s fundraising systems. Over the past two years WLIW has reduced its staff by 20 or more in anticipation of the combination. The two staffs will use the same computer systems and by fall will share a master control room, Baker and Cass said. The stations can also make program decisions without casting a competitive eye at the other, they said.
"Terrel is a hell of a competitor," Baker commented. Now he can spend less time worrying about Cass, he said. For example, because WLIW carried BBC coverage of the space shuttle explosion, WNET was able to maintain its usual schedule. They didn’t cross-promote this time, Baker said, but they will in the future.
Eight WLIW board members have joined the board of WNET’s licensee, Educational Broadcasting Corp. (EBC), which maintains a membership of 55. WLIW Chairman Barry R. Shapiro becomes an EBC vice chairman. The pact was not a standard merger because WLIW’s old licensee, Long Island Educational TV Council Inc., will remain in existence as an advisory board and fundraising arm of EBC.
Some Long Islanders have harbored suspicions over the intentions of WNET, which made a behind-the-scenes play to take over the New Jersey Network 10 years ago.
Marvin Kitman, longtime Newsday TV columnist and frequent critic of WNET, called the combination an "assault on the public interest," comparing WLIW’s deal to Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938, deploring WNET’s expansionism and predicting it would stint on service to Long Island.
In the purchase agreement, EBC pledged to use its "best efforts" to maintain WLIW’s distinct identity within EBC and produce at least five half-hours of primetime Long Island programming a week and at least four Long Island town hall meetings a year. The pact provides for a joint programming committee in case relations get tense. And it pledged best efforts to invest $1 million a year in a production unit headed by Cass that will make programs for WLIW, WNET and other stations. EBC also said it will try to put WLIW’s digital signal on the air, including high-definition TV, and to continue to broadcast instructional TV for Long Island schools.
The stations repeatedly added the "best efforts" phrase because the FCC doesn’t permit licensees to make absolute promises about programming to outside groups, according to EBC. The purchase agreement, announced in July 2001, awaited FCC approval for a year, finally winning an okay in October, according to EBC.
EBC acquired nearly all WLIW assets and assumed its commitments, including bargaining agreements with its technical union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which also represents WNET’s technicians.
The deal gives the old WLIW board the right to match any offer for WLIW if EBC considers selling the station.
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