Autonomy, mutual benefit seen by new N.Y. partners

Print More


Now they’re sister stations
Cume households* 3.1 mil. 2.1 mil.
Annual spending $180 mil. $14 mil.
Employees (approx.) 450 80**
Members 350,000 < 50,000
*Nielsen cume audiences are for one week in November. **WLIW employees include 24 technicians hired on a daily basis.

They will maintain separate on-air identities and production efforts, but two of the New York City area’s public TV stations completed their
long-expected marriage Jan. 31.

WNET, a major production house for public TV with a budget of $180 million acquired the assets of WLIW, its feisty Long Island-based rival with a
budget of $14 million.

WLIW President Terrel Cass has a five-year contract with EBC, retaining his title—now as head of a subsidiary company who reports to WNET President Bill Baker. Key WLIW execs including programmer Kent Steele also remain.

“We’re in it for the long term,” Cass said in a joint interview with Baker. “I have three new bow ties,” he joked, referring to Baker’s trademark neckwear.

Baker said Cass will have autonomy but also “the economic security and
resources that he never had before.” He credited a push from CPB and the
openness of both stations’ boards for the legal combination, which represents
the biggest success of CPB’s campaign for joint operations in multistation

“What we did here is pretty much unprecedented,” Cass said. “The important
thing is that we will be able to cut costs” to a “substantial” degree,
he said. WLIW’s membership chief, for example, will save a bundle by using
WNET’s fundraising systems. Over the past two years WLIW has reduced its
staff by 20 or more in anticipation of the combination. The two staffs
will use the same computer systems and by fall will share a master control
room, Baker and Cass said. The stations can also make program decisions
without casting a competitive eye at the other, they said.

“Terrel is a hell of a competitor,” Baker commented. Now he can spend
less time worrying about Cass, he said. For example, because WLIW carried
BBC coverage of the space shuttle explosion, WNET was able to maintain
its usual schedule. They didn’t cross-promote this time, Baker said, but
they will in the future.

Eight WLIW board members have joined the board of WNET’s licensee, Educational
Broadcasting Corp. (EBC), which maintains a membership of 55. WLIW Chairman
Barry R. Shapiro becomes an EBC vice chairman. The pact was not a standard
merger because WLIW’s old licensee, Long Island Educational TV Council
Inc., will remain in existence as an advisory board and fundraising arm
of EBC.

Some Long Islanders have harbored suspicions over the intentions of WNET,
which made a behind-the-scenes play to take over the New Jersey Network
10 years ago.

Marvin Kitman, longtime Newsday TV columnist and frequent critic of WNET,
called the combination an “assault on the public interest,” comparing
WLIW’s deal to Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938, deploring WNET’s
expansionism and predicting it would stint on service to Long Island.

In the purchase agreement, EBC pledged to use its “best efforts” to maintain
WLIW’s distinct identity within EBC and produce at least five half-hours
of primetime Long Island programming a week and at least four Long Island
town hall meetings a year. The pact provides for a joint programming committee
in case relations get tense. And it pledged best efforts to invest $1
million a year in a production unit headed by Cass that will make programs
for WLIW, WNET and other stations. EBC also said it will try to put WLIW’s
digital signal on the air, including high-definition TV, and to continue
to broadcast instructional TV for Long Island schools.

The stations repeatedly added the “best efforts” phrase because the FCC
doesn’t permit licensees to make absolute promises about programming to
outside groups, according to EBC. The purchase agreement, announced in
July 2001, awaited FCC approval for a year, finally winning an okay in
October, according to EBC.

EBC acquired nearly all WLIW assets and assumed its commitments, including
bargaining agreements with its technical union, the International Brotherhood
of Electrical Workers, which also represents WNET’s technicians.

The deal gives the old WLIW board the right to match any offer for WLIW
if EBC considers selling the station.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *