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Fort Wayne TV Takeover — the Sequel

Fort Wayne left stunned by media merger 10 months in the making

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-03-21


When Fort Wayne tuned into WISE 33 for the early evening news cast on March 8th to see Linda Jackson anchoring the news all by her lonesome in front of a 21 Alive logo, viewers reacted as though they had been jolted from a peaceful slumber by a slap in the face. Why was Linda Jackson, who has channel 33 practically written all over her, broadcasting from 21? What happened to WISE 33?

The ensuing outcry is a bit like those old science-fiction movies where a runaway comet is on a collision course with Earth. Despite the fact that even amateur stargazers have telescopes powerful enough to see craters on the moon, a massive ball of fire escapes detection by the world’s most technologically advanced astronomy centers until it’s practically too late to do anything but prepare for impact.

Fort Wayne should be outraged, of course, but where was all this outrage when Granite announced its plans to sell WPTA 21 to Malara and buy WISE 33 last May? It wasn’t a secret. Even the Fort Wayne Reader knew about it, and no one tells us anything. We did a story on it last May, Sylvia Smith did a story on it for The Journal Gazette, NewsChannel 15 ran a story on it as recently as December…

All joking aside, something bad really did happen here. Granite Broadcasting, a New York-based media company that owns and operates several network-affiliated TV stations in medium-sized markets across the country, sold Fort Wayne’s ABC affiliate to a company called Malara Broadcasting, and picked up WISE 33, the NBC-affiliate in town. In what’s called a strategic partnership between the two companies, Granite provides advertising sales, promotion, administrative services and programming to both WPTA and WISE 33.

The deal plays fast and loose with some FCC rules and regulations. Essentially, Malara Broadcasting owns 21 on paper; it’s Granite who is actually running the station, which makes them the de facto owner of both 21 and 33. According to the FCC, one company can’t own two or more stations in a designated marketing area (DMA) if that DMA has fewer than eight stations. Fort Wayne has seven in its DMA.

But to make a long story short, the FCC didn’t see it that way, and approved the deal. Now, Fort Wayne residents are shocked — shocked — by this blatant example of shady media consolidation right here in our hometown. And all the speculation about what might happen — loss of another TV news outlet, loss of jobs, etc. — has pretty much become reality.

Ron Bame of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 723, the union that represents workers at WISE 33 and WPTA 21, says the job cuts at 33 didn’t quite come out of the blue. They knew job cuts were in the offing when they sat down to bargain with Granite on Friday, March 4th. “We knew what was going to happen,” he says. “Tuesday (March 8th) wasn’t a huge surprise. They weren’t locked out, nothing of that nature. But at the same time, they had no idea how many more days they would be working, etc. We didn’t have a time frame.”

Bame adds that the reports of generous severance packages for the employees were true. “We had severance packages already bargained in the WISE 33 contract, and Granite didn’t hesitate to enhance it, and they didn’t have to. I don’t want to sound like I’m sticking up for someone who just got rid of 30 of my members, but I do have to be truthful. (Granite) didn’t have to, but they did.”

Generous severance packages or not, aren’t the type of specialized technical jobs that were lost in the merger the type of jobs many city officials say we should be trying to bring to Fort Wayne? Now there’s one less employer offering those kind of jobs. “We’re losing these jobs because the technology allows for remote operation of stations,” says Bame. “Because of that, and because of FCC rulings, we’re beginning to see one or more stations in the same viewing area being operated by the same entity. Anytime you can do something of that nature, you cut down on your head count. I think from a labor standpoint, it’s a bad thing.”

A similar deal between the two companies was happening in Duluth, MN, where Malara bought the area’s CBS affiliate KDLH, while Granite owns the NBC affiliate, KBJR. KDLH terminated all but three of its on-air staff. In Duluth, however, the ABC affiliate, WDIO, filed a complaint with the FCC. The long range potential consequences for all mid-size markets like Fort Wayne and Duluth are fairly extreme,” says Steve Goodspeed, news director at WDIO. “There must be a hundred some markets in our general ball park where you could conceivably over the next several years see 1/3 of the small market news department eliminated.”

Goodspeed says there’s a matter of principle involved. “The FCC has said one company can’t own two stations,” he explains. “Clearly Malara and Granite, along with other companies in other markets, have found a way to skirt around the technical, legal aspects. But you’re still going to be violating the principle the FCC established, which was you shouldn’t have too much concentration of control in a small market. That concentration of control has been allowed, without changing the rules about owning it. If the FCC is going to say ‘hey, we don’t care if it gets concentrated. We’re just going to let market forces take over,’ then I think they should say that. But they’ve created the illusion that they’ve drawn this line, when really they haven’t, because obviously the ownership deal is not much of an obstacle to get around.”

Steve Shine, a member of the FCC law association and a broadcaster in Fort Wayne who has followed the situation, has several ideas of why no one in Fort Wayne filed a similar complaint. “I think that if the situation was going to be fought out at the FCC, that it was not necessary to have two markets fighting,” he says. “There’s more camaraderie and collegiality in the Fort Wayne market than there may be in Duluth, and the owners of the other TV stations thought ‘our work is being done in Duluth, and we don’t need to get into the ring and box this one out.’ Who knows if one more marketplace objecting to it would have made a difference?”

As far as the public outcry in Fort Wayne, Shine believes no one really understood the significance of the Granite/Malara deal, even if they had heard of it, and didn’t realize how it would unfold. “I don’t think anybody — with regard to whether it’s TV programming, radio programming, or their favorite flavor of ice cream — likes change,” Shine says. “So it’s going to take some time getting used to. The initial days are definitely the roughest days.”

The Granite/Malara deal is probably the most obvious and blatant example of concentration of broadcasting ownership that Fort Wayne has seen so far. It’s a controversial trend that’s affecting both radio and television. Television, in fact, has been dealing with it for decades, and the past few years have seen it start to happen in radio, as satellite and internet radio offer listeners more options. These changes, Shine explains, “…by necessity, require a change in the rules, because rules are not the same as when there were just four stations in the market. Whether it’s good for the community remains to be seen. Anytime voices are snuffed out because of concentration of ownership, that initially is not good.”

But Shine emphasizes that these are early days yet. “Jerry Geisler (Senior VP for 21 and 33) and Chris Fedele (General Manager at 21) are absolutely first-class, professional individuals who have no malice or ill-will in their heart, who are working to not only serve their companies but also serve the community,” Shine says. “Perhaps they will see with the situation at WISE that another attempt should be made to have some form of independent voice coming from some other segment of the operation so that it becomes more diverse in coverage of opinion.”

“This gives Granite the opportunity to show that broadcasters take seriously their responsibility of providing diversity in opinions, and to provide greater access to the spectrum by the public,” Shine adds. “Don’t forget, the airwaves belong to the people, not the corporations.”

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