Changing the channel 

The FCC still hasn't offered a ruling on the sale of WMFE-TV's license to a Christian broadcasting company

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June 30, 2011, was a dark day for many Central Florida PBS fans. That’s the day that WMFE-TV Channel 24, which used to be the place Central Florida went to catch Sesame Street, Antiques Roadshow and other public television favorites, went off the air. WMFE had announced just two months earlier that it was leaving the PBS system and entering into an agreement to sell the station’s license for $3 million to a group called Community Educators of Orlando. Community Educators said it would run the station “primarily to serve the educational needs of the community,” as the FCC’s license for noncommercial educational TV stations, such as Channel 24, dictates.

Nine months later, though, Channel 24 is still sending out a signal, but it's only airing V-me, a public television service that caters to Spanish speakers, from 6 a.m. to midnight. For airing V-me, WMFE is entitled to receive $40,000 a month in federal grant money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Brighthouse subscribers will often see a public service message announcing on their channel guides telling them that local PBS programming has moved over to WUCF-TV Channel 1 (a partnership between Brevard Community College and the University of Central Florida).

The FCC still hasn’t approved the sale of the TV station’s license to Community Educators of Orlando, which turned out to be an arm of Daystar Television Networks, a Bedford, Texas-based Christian broadcaster committed solely to – in its own words – “reach souls with the good news of Jesus Christ.” If the sale is approved, Channel 24 will become the fourth Christian broadcasting station in the market.

When the community got wind of the fact that the buyer of WMFE was not going to be another PBS affiliate, many protested. According to documents filed on the FCC’s website, the agency received 538 comments, letters and petitions on the sale of Channel 24 to Daystar – the vast majority opposed the sale.

“Daystar misrepresented itself as an educational group named ‘Community Educators of Orlando,’” wrote Elizabeth Tuura of Orlando in a May 2011 letter to Sen. Bill Nelson, which was added to the FCC’s vast list of complaints concerning the transfer. “Make no mistake: This is a church … none of the large donors knew it was up for sale.”

In a letter dated Dec. 7, 2011, from Michael Perko, the head of the FCC Media Bureau’s Office of Communications and Industry Information, to U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, a Texas Republican whose district includes Daystar’s headquarters, it was stated that the FCC had “recently completed a preliminary evaluation of the WMFE-TV assignment application … as well as the related informal objections,” and “it was necessary to obtain additional information” before making a final judgment on the transfer.

“The application is still pending before the FCC, under review,” WMFE president and CEO José Fajardo said in an interview with Orlando Weekly at the beginning of January. “We have learned from the FCC that they are moving to get to a quick resolution by the beginning of this new year, so we hope to have a positive conclusion to this transaction, hopefully within the next 30 to 45 days. But we’re optimistic about how it’s proceeding now with the FCC.”

In June, Community Communications Inc., which is the name of the nonprofit broadcasting company under which WMFE operates, filed an opposition statement to the community’s complaints.

“Time is of the essence,” it read. “Since announcing the pending assignment of license, CCI cannot ethically go on the air to raise additional funds to support the public television operation, which was already operating at a deficit. The company’s cash reserves are limited and most have already been consumed to sustain WMFE-TV over the past few months. A delay in granting this proposed assignment would be devastating to the surviving entity.”

In May (“PBS R.I.P.?” May 26, 2011), WMFE said that a decline in pledges to the station plus purported increases in PBS programming fees made the station’s operation untenable, and it made more sense for WMFE to focus its resources on 90.7 FM, its NPR-affiliated radio station (disclosure: WMFE-FM broadcasts weekly commentaries provided by Orlando Weekly on Thursday and Saturday mornings). Fajardo reiterates that the decision to sell the TV station was a smart business decision; once Channel 24 is sold, he says, WMFE will invest the proceeds into 90.7 FM by adding new staff positions and expanding local news coverage.

Meanwhile, UCF and BCC’s partnership has led to a new PBS outlet that “is doing pretty well,” according to UCF associate vice president of communications and public affairs Grant Heston. WUCF-TV airs much of the same programming as formerly found on WMFE-TV. “We feel like the Central Florida community has welcomed us with open arms,” he says. “Any time you have a channel change, it’s a challenge to make sure people know about it.” Heston says BCC and UCF found out about the sale of Channel 24 at the same time everyone else did – that is to say, after Daystar and Community Communications had struck up an agreement – leaving them with very little time to pull together their agreement to take over as the area’s leading PBS broadcaster in the market.

“I wish the community could see how hard this group of people are working [on WUCF],” he says. “I’ve been involved in a lot of different projects in a lot of different areas and I have never seen a group work harder.”

The office space and former studio occupied by Channel 24 currently sits vacant – Heston says that some viewers have told him they thought WUCF had taken them over during the switch, but that’s not the case. WMFE is looking for a tenant to take over the space, but Fajardo says filling the space isn’t the organization’s highest priority at this time. The first order of business is improving programming on 90.7 FM. He says that the past three fund drives have exceeded WMFE’s goals, despite insistence by some that the unpopular decision to dump the TV license would hurt donations to the radio station. In June WMFE exceeded its fund drive goal of $230,000 by more than $3,500; in December, it raised $615 more than its $150,000 goal.

As for the federal money that’s still coming in? “That grant is paying, really, for the minimum cost of broadcasting Channel 24 currently,” Fajardo says. “Right now, it’s a wash for us as we continue to wait for the final decision of the FCC.”

Daystar is waiting for that final decision, too. When asked for a comment on the pending sale, Daniel Woodward, Daystar’s director of marketing, declines.

“We don’t comment on station acquisitions,” he says in a written statement, “but we are excited about all the growth Daystar is experiencing and thankful for the opportunities God has given us to spread the good news of Jesus Christ around the world.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that WMFE was broadcasting V-me only on its sub-channels. WMFE CEO Jose Fajardo has contacted us to let us know that V-me is also broadcast on Channel 24 from 6 a.m. to midnight. 

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