Television

TV Worth Selling

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Are public television stations quietly being privatized?

Without much attention, several have been and more may be on the way. Many date the privatization of public stations to the 1995 sale of WNYC-TV, a PBS affiliate owned by the city of New York. Dow Jones paid the city more than $200 million for the station and promptly converted it to a business-news format. Today, the station serves as the East Coast flagship of Paxson TV, the seventh national commercial television network, which began broadcasting in August.

A few weeks before the Paxson network's debut, PBS stations in Buffalo and Albany were bought by Sinclair Broadcasting, which already owned 54 commercial television stations, for $56 million. If the federal government approves the sale, Sinclair will convert both stations from public to commercial programming. And yet another transfer, of a PBS station in Pittsburgh, is awaiting federal approval.

One might think PBS is bemoaning the loss of stations in four Eastern markets, but one would be wrong: Public television officials note that even if all of these sales are approved, there will still be one PBS station left in each city. And that is the concept: one PBS station to a city.

PBS says there are still 22 cities which have two or more public television stations, and the network would be quite happy to concentrate its resources on just one station in each market. But those extra PBS stations have become more valuable to commercial owners.

Decades ago, there were just the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks. Most broadcasters believed television could sustain only three or four stations in each city, so they gave away "surplus" stations for a song–or less. Now, with Fox, WB, UPN, Paxson, and, coming soon, Barry Diller's new network, there is a demand for eight commercial network affiliates in each city, so the hunt is on to find new stations.

The U.S. public television system, built over the last 30 years by billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, has discovered it can reap tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars per city by downsizing. This trend may give the concept of the public television fund-raising drive an entirely new meaning.