Triple overlap in Orlando area

Orlando’s overlapped WMFE opts to sell its channel, exit public TV

Proceeds from channel sale will be invested to benefit WMFE Radio's news

It was not an April Fool's Day joke. The announcement last week by WMFE, the public TV and radio station in Orlando, Fla., said it's getting out of the public TV business but staying with public radio.

The nonprofit Orlando licensee has filed with the FCC to transfer its reserved noncommercial Channel 24 to an affiliate of Daystar Television Network, the Dallas-based Christian broadcaster that bought KERA's second TV channel in 2004 and fought KOCE for control of its channel in Orange County.

The buyer listed in the FCC filing, Community Educators of Orlando, is apparently an affiliate of Daystar based at the same address in Bedford, Texas.

The sale price was $3 million, according to the document, contrary to an earlier press report that it was $5 million.

José A. Fajardo, president of WMFE, told Current that the sale proceeds, invested as an endowment, will enable the radio station to afford three or four additional journalists on its staff.
The decision to drop out of public TV could be seen as a part of the expected shakeout of the weaker public stations, predicted as the recession deepened.

It also spotlights public radio's advantages over public TV, including a stronger market position, focused on in-depth news. For WMFE's TV station, underwriting revenues are down 68 percent since 2007, and individual giving is down 40 percent. The FM station, in contrast, reached its pledge goal ahead of schedule, during its recent drive, and has enjoyed strong audience growth since going all-news in 2009.

The station decision also amounts to a second deadly serious vote by a PBS-member station against the network's program pricing policies. In Los Angeles, KCET cast a high-profile vote late last year by acting on its threat to drop PBS as its program supplier. Last week, L.A. real estate sources leaked word that the station had agreed to sell its dowry: the Hollywood studio and sound stages it once hoped to keep busy producing shows for PBS.

Both WMFE and KCET were the primary PBS-member stations in markets with multiple overlapping stations. In WMFE's case, two part-time PBS members — WDSC in Daytona Beach and WBCC in Cocoa, both licensed to state colleges — carry a limited selection of PBS shows on a delayed basis and pay PBS much lower fees. All three broadcast from the same cluster of towers, the Orlando manager noted.

"There are simply too many things negatively impacting public TV today," Fajardo said. Given the declining donations to the TV station and expected increases in PBS program fees, "at least in our market, we think the model is no longer viable." With the value of Channel 24 dropping, in his judgment, it would be best "to monetize it while we can."

The recession had already undercut WMFE's attempt to boost local program production for TV. It had raised $2.3 million, including grants from local governments, and put two half-hour programs — public affairs and arts — on the Thursday primetime schedule. But philanthropists and governments alike reduced or withdrew their aid as the recession hit them, Fajardo said. WMFE laid off its local production staff a year ago.

This story has been revised from the print edition, which cited a reported but unconfirmed sale price estimate of $5 million.

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