Pittsburgh gets a new independent

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Attention, syndicators: Pittsburgh is getting a new commercial
independent.

In a three-to-one vote along party lines, the Federal Communications
Commission has agreed to dereserve noncommercial WQED Pittsburgh's co-owned
noncommercial WQEX there and sell it to Shooting Star Inc. for $20 million.

Shooting Star, which first petitioned to buy the station last January, will
operate it as a commercial independent.

To make the deal happen, the FCC also agreed to waive its general rule that
dereserved channels must be opened to competing applications.

Since the FCC concluded that WQED was selling the station to dig itself out
of a financial hole and fund its digital transition, the dereservation and the
waiver of the rule went hand-in-hand.

Shooting Star, owned by Diane Sutter, saw room for another commercial station
in the market, and the FCC did, too.

In addition to WQED's financial hardship, the commission cited as one of its
reasons for allowing the unusual move the fact that Pittsburgh (DMA No. 20) had
only seven commercial stations -- fewer than the total in numerous comparable
markets.

Until recently, the only affiliation available in the market was Pax TV,
which recently signed a deal to be carried on cable there.

Nevertheless, Sutter believes the market is ripe for a strong independent
providing a lineup of popular syndicated programs largely missing from the
Pittsburgh market, along with local news and public affairs.

Another factor weighing in WQED's favor in the FCC's decision was the fact
that since 1997, WQEX had simply been a simulcast of WQEX, so there would be no
loss of original programming.

The deal had been opposed by a coalition of local citizens and independent
advocates for public broadcasting, which wanted the commission to solicit
applications for channel 16's license from other public-station operators.

Not so the public broadcasting establishment: The FCC pointed out in its
ruling that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Pennsylvania Public
Television Network Commission, among others, urged the FCC to allow the
sale.

Sutter's agreement to buy the station was set to expire Dec. 31.

Two earlier deals to spin off WQEX have fallen though. Plans to sell to
another commercial owner were rejected by the FCC six years ago. And a 1999
attempt to turn the station over to religious broadcasters in a complicated
three-way swap with Paxson Communications Corp. fell apart after many in
Congress attacked accompanying FCC guidelines for operation of noncommercial
stations by religious broadcasters.

Dissenting from the decision was commissioner Michael Copps, who felt that
the frequency should be opened to competing public broadcast applicants and
argued that the decision makes it easier to sell 'the jewels of our nation's
broadcast system' -- a move he said is not in the public interest.

The commission majority, in a separate statement, said its action should not
be interpreted as a change in its policy of generally disfavoring dereservation.
It also said that absent the type of 'compelling circumstances' it found in this
case, dereserved stations should be open to competing applications, with the
money going to government coffers.

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