FCC questions buyer's qualifications in WQED's second channel sale
Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998
The cogs and gears of the FCC can now be seen turning on the controversial sale of WQED's second TV channel, 10 months after the Pittsburgh licensee filed papers and 20 months after the FCC pledged it would expedite its consideration of such a filing.
The debt-burdened station couldn't sell Channel 16 because it's a reserved noncommercial educational channel, and the FCC refused to waive that fact in August 1996, so it's now awaiting the commission decision on a proposed channel swap: WQED would sell Channel 16 to a local religious broadcaster, which in turn would sell its own non-reserved channel to a commercial broadcaster.
It's been a long wait. Two months ago, CPB, PBS and APTS urged the commission to act "without further delay," though they didn't root for or oppose WQED's plan.
The issue surfaced March 27 when the FCC asked the religious broadcaster, Cornerstone TeleVision Inc., for "further demonstration of the overall general educational, cultural and instructional nature" of programming it would air on reserved Channel 16. Cornerstone has 30 days to reply.
WQED President George Miles told Current he's glad to see the commission moving toward a decision and said he's confident that Cornerstone can answer the FCC request.
A leading opponent of the sale of Channel 16, West Virginia University Prof. Jerry Starr, said the FCC letter "confirms everything we've been saying" about the channel swap. Indeed, the commission questioned Cornerstone about several issues raised by Starr and colleagues in the Alliance for Progressive Action and the QED Accountability Project.
Cornerstone gave "insufficient documentation" of its educational purpose or programs, the FCC said. "The channels reserved for educational use are intended to serve the educational and cultural broadcast needs of the entire community to which they are assigned," the FCC staff stated.
The FCC also asked Cornerstone what steps it would take to comply with FCC rules against ads on noncom channels, noting that Cornerstone now carries program-length commercials and shorter ads for its own products and those of a talk-show producer.
Cornerstone's officers and board members also "do not appear to be 'broadly representative'" of Pittsburgh as required by FCC rules, the letter said. All board members work in religion or at Cornerstone itself, the FCC said.
The religious broadcaster still has a lot of maneuvering room. The FCC noted that "programs that involve the teaching of matters relating to religion" do qualify as educational.
WQED's station swap has repeatedly run into opposition by Starr and other activists, who opposed the Cornerstone swap with an inch-thick petition last July.
When WQED announced in September that it would drop the separate Channel 16 schedule and simulcast on both of its channels to save money, the activists charged that it would be "wasting" the channel and petitioned the FCC for an early review of the Channel 16 license.
Then in October, when local newspapers reported that WQED had aired illegal ads promoting a referendum backing two new sports stadiums and other public works, the activists added that to its complaint. WQED said it had erred in broadcasting seven 60-second paid ads that "would appear to be inappropriate" under the law. It canceled the remaining spots and returned $6,800 to the campaign committee.
Miles and board Chairman James Roddey favored the unsuccessful ballot initiative to raise sales taxes for stadium subsidy.
If the deal goes through, Paxson Communications will pay $35 million to Cornerstone for its Channel 40, and WQED will get half of that for Channel 16. The influx will pay off WQED's debt of about $14 million.
Opponents say WQED is depriving the region of "unique educational and locally oriented programming" formerly shown on Channel 16, while Miles says he must pay off WQED's debt, which costs $700,000 a year in interest.
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Related news: CIPB founder Starr has been active in questioning WQED management practices and opposing the station's plan to sell its second channel. The plan remains stymied at the FCC, three years after it was set into motion. In 1998, the commission raised questions about the complex channel sale.
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