Jun 1 1996

Stop the Sell-Off of Public Broadcasting

The last issue of Extra! (5-6/96) discussed the threat that public television stations might be sold to commercial broadcasters. One of the first such sales may be imminent–and now is the time to try to stop it.

Pittsburgh is one of 30-some metropolitan regions across the country that is fortunate enough to have more than one public TV station. WQED is the larger, VHF station, airing more standard PBS fare; that station’s board also controls WQEX, a UHF channel which is more open to alternative public affairs programs, featuring labor, minority and human rights perspectives.

Due to extreme mismanagement, waste and inflated executive salaries, the Pittsburgh public TV system has become mired in debt. Like many non-commercial broadcasters around the country, top WQED management has long seen the second channel as a redundancy that could be cashed in for big money.

The logic that more than one public channel is too many is peculiar. It’s as if to say that the public is entitled to no more space on the TV dial than a corporation like Fox Broadcasting. Indeed, there’s movement toward allowing corporate broadcasters to buy more than one station in the same market, even as public systems may be downsized.

More fundamentally, the licenses that WQED and other public television stations control are not their private property–they are held on behalf of the public, and are specifically dedicated to non-commercial broadcasting. Indeed, the legal restrictions against airing commercials on such stations are what has prevented WQEX from being sold off already.

WQED is trying to get around these restrictions with a provision buried deeply in the massive federal budget bill passed in April. The station’s friends in Congress–including senators Alan Specter and Rick Santorum, and Rep. John Murtha–inserted a passage that requires the FCC to give speeded-up consideration to a request to commercialize WQEX‘s license.

“It’s a shame that WQED has used backroom politics to sell off a community asset which has been entrusted to them to be held in the public’s interest, not for their own self-aggrandizement,” communications lawyer Frederick Polner told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (5/2/96).

As Extra! Update went to press, WQED reportedly was planning to submit a formal request by June 1. The special law then gives the FCC 30 days to respond. If the FCC allows one of the public stations in Pittsburgh to go commercial, it could set a precedent for many other “redundant” stations across the country.

As these stations tend to air more of the controversial, alternative programming that is public TV’s mandate, their commercialization would be a great loss. If you have an opinion on whether the FCC should OK the sell-off of the public’s TV licenses to private owners, now is the time to express yourself. You can contact FCC chair Reed Hundt by fax (202- 418-2801) or by email (rhundt@fcc.gov), or by writing 1919 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20554.