For years Pittsburghers have witnessed the low regard in which public television station WQED holds its second channel, WQEX. Since November 1997, WQED has been airing on WQEX the same programs, at the same time, as on its flagship Channel 13, simulcasting a typical PBS mix of kids’ shows, pro-business public affairs, Antiques Roadshow and Nova. And three times in the past seven years, WQED–arguing that Pittsburgh doesn’t need and can’t support two noncommercial stations–has sought to unload WQEX and pocket the proceeds to repair its own troubled finances.
This past summer the Bush appointees of the Federal Communications Commission rewarded this stewardship, voting 3 to 1 to let WQED “de-reserve” WQEX–that is, open it to commercial use, sell it to commercial broadcaster ShootingStar Inc. and keep the $20 million purchase price. Unable to secure financing, ShootingStar bailed out in November when WQEX rejected the broadcaster’s request to modify the terms of the sale. Nonetheless, the station remains on the open market, and the vote still sets a dangerous precedent for dozens of public television’s so-called second stations in larger markets. Many of these stations were distributed to existing stations to further public TV’s educational mission.
In his scathing dissent, commissioner Michael Copps called the majority’s action a violation of the public interest and an unprecedented breach of FCC policies. It was bad enough to halve the number of public stations–the first time a noncommercial educational license has been de-reserved without being replaced. But the vote also contradicts longstanding FCC policy by letting WQED both peddle WQEX without putting it up for competitive bid and then keep the proceeds–money that would normally accrue to the taxpayers.
About three-fifths of Americans have access to two or more public-TV signals, according to sociologist and activist Jerold Starr, author of Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting. In 1989 a PBS-commissioned study concluded that not only do stations in two-station markets exhibit little duplication of programming but second stations are more diverse and respond better to local needs, incorporating for instance ethnic, labor and queer perspectives. That is, they do what public TV is supposed to. Starr, head of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), cites examples, including KDBI in Denver/Boulder, WYBE in Philadelphia–and, until 1997, WQEX.
However, large-market public stations have long complained that secondary (usually smaller) stations, whether owned by the same group or not, pay less for programming and compete for donations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has effectively cut funding to second stations in public-TV duopolies. And some big-city stations have explored reducing the number of PBS member stations to one per market.
Until WQED, none had succeeded. Citing financial troubles, the once-proud station–birthplace of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood–tried twice previously to de-reserve and sell WQEX, including a proposed three-party swap and sale that would have ended with WQEX operated by fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Cornerstone TeleVision. The FCC approved this deal, but it died when Cornerstone refused to comply with an FCC demand that it actually air educational programs as opposed to strictly religious programs on the channel.
WQED currently claims it is $9 million in debt, with the expense of mandatory conversion to digital broadcasting and other needed improvements to come. FCC chairman Michael Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin agree that de-reserving WQEX and keeping the proceeds is WQED’s only hope. They say Pittsburgh’s stagnant economy and population decline make supporting two noncommercial stations impossible–though they also assert that adding an eighth commercial channel will insure a diversity of voices in the Pittsburgh market.
The majority cites as evidence that WQEX isn’t needed the fact that WQED has been doing nothing with it but simulcasting. Yet as Copps–the FCC’s lone Democrat–argues, WQED presents no evidence that it tried to sell WQEX to an entity that might have run it noncommercially in fresh and interesting ways (as universities and state bodies do in other US cities). He also notes that nearly fifty markets smaller than Pittsburgh support two or more noncommercial educational stations.
“Only a conservative Republican FCC could possibly have made this ruling,” says Starr, whose CIPB joined other grassroots activists in opposing previous threats to WQEX, even seeking to strip WQED of its license. Starr says CIPB won’t appeal the decision, largely because the FCC worded its ruling to apply only to license-holders in severe financial distress. But he agrees it’s a bad precedent: State and local government bodies and colleges and universities, which hold nearly half the country’s 350 or so public-TV licenses, might now be emboldened to claim fiscal distress and try to divest themselves of second stations. In an era of media consolidation and increasing commercialization of public TV, the transformation of a nonprofit broadcast outlet into a commercial one is cause for alarm.