FCC challenging Daystar qualifications to purchase pubstations in Waco, Orlando

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The FCC is questioning the Daystar religious broadcasting network’s qualifications to purchase two public television stations, citing lack of sufficient proof of local control and educational programming.

A March 13 FCC letter provides insight into the commission’s nearly yearlong delay in approving the sale of WMFE-TV in Orlando, which the station canceled last week, and could affect the pending purchase of former PBS affiliate KWBU in Waco, Texas. The Daystar Television Network was the buyer in both cases — and also bid on KCSM-TV in San Mateo, Calif.

In the letter, Barbara Kreisman, chief of the video division of the FCC’s media bureau, addressed the two local entities involved in those sales: The Community Educators of Orlando, and Community Television Educators of Waco. Officers for both entities are Marcus Lamb and his wife, Joni, founders and top execs of the Bedford, Texas-based Daystar.

The six-page letter gives the groups 15 days to “demonstrate that the stations will be used to advance an educational program and will be locally controlled.” Without that proof, “we cannot conclude” that the groups meet the eligibility requirements to hold a noncom license, the letter says.

Longtime public broadcasting attorney Ernest Sanchez said that in the FCC letter, Kreisman is questioning whether the local Waco and Orlando entities “are genuine, functioning, local groups, or are they ‘window dressing’ for some third party, such as Daystar?” Undisclosed third party control of a station is prohibited, he said.

The FCC is also asking for more explanation from Daystar on local programming, Sanchez said, as it appears that the two stations would carry the same content, mainly Daystar shows. And the proposed involvement of Daystar personnel in the local stations, along with Daystar’s work in helping finance the sale transactions, has the FCC wondering if Daystar “is a ‘real party in interest,’ which would secretly control the nominally local and independent stations,” Sanchez said.

On March 14, WMFE-TV in Orlando informed the FCC that it had withdrawn from its sales agreement. The station had been waiting for FCC approval since April 2011. “The deal was simply dragging through the process longer than we’d anticipated,” said Jose Fajardo, WMFE president. The FCC’s letter “helped us make our decision to opt out.”

In Waco, the letter caught KWBU President Joe Riley by surprise. “We’re thinking and talking, we don’t know what our next move will be,” he said.

Daystar declined comment to Current. Riley said he spoke briefly with Daystar reps since the letter went public. “They’re trying to figure out what to do too,” he said.

The letter could also affect work by the Independent Public Media group, headed by John Schwartz, founder of WYBE in Philadelphia and KBDI in Denver as well as WYEP-FM in Pittsburgh, and Ken Devine, a former WNET v.p. The IPM, funded by $40 million from Schwartz’s EBS Companies, is bidding on KCSM in San Mateo and wants to acquire other public TV stations to keep noncom spectrum within the pubcasting system. “We have seen the letter and are reviewing the issues raised in it with our attorneys,” Devine said.

The issues in the FCC letter are similar to those 14 years ago when religious broadcaster Cornerstone TeleVision tried to purchase WQED’s second TV channel in Pittsburgh. Back then, the FCC asked Cornerstone for “further demonstration of the overall general educational, cultural and instructional nature” of programming it would air on reserved Channel 16, saying it provided “insufficient documentation” of its educational purpose or programs. Ultimately, the FCC approved the deal but Cornerstone backed out. — Dru Sefton

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