Going back to the beginning?

Master control, 1993-styleFamily members drew my attention to a news item in today’s local paper that is funny-in-a-sad-sort-of-way, and strangely intriguing at the same time. Here’s an excerpt.

TV station KFSM of Fort Smith is seeking a federal waiver of duopoly rules so that it can buy a second TV station in its market area, an official with the Fort Smith station confirmed Friday. Van Comer, president and general manager of KFSM, said his station and KPBI of Eureka Springs have been negotiating the sale for about a year and have signed an asset purchase agreement for $784,000.

Let’s go over the reactions to this that I had almost immediately upon hearing it, and why I had these reactions.

Background: I worked at KPBI – the original KPBI – in the spring of 1993, starting out as a part-time morning board op running the kids’ cartoons at a time when Fox was rolling out a bizarre new kids’ show called Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, whose commercial breaks were gorged full of commercials for Super Mario Bros. 3 and Sonic The Hedgehog, and occasional commercials for action figures based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek: The Next Generation – yeah, that long ago. When I went full time I wound up working the overnight shift, which was a black hole from which you were unlikely to escape. It’s hard to find people to work overnight TV and radio shifts with any reliability without taking advantage of the lack of supervision to goof off all the time. The overnights are when syndicated show satellite feeds are recorded in great numbers – both then and now – and if you’re actually good at working that shift, it takes an act of Congress to get off of that shift. Or you get sloppy and start goofing off.

Or you do what I did – goof off with the production equipment that’s not being used overnight, and prove to the management that your talents could be put to better use than pushing a button to run a commercial break. Thus I went from babysitting the overnight showing of Home Shopping Network, insert-editing breaks onto old tapes of Love Connection (where hearts were broken almost as often as the control track was) and catching gang feeds of In The Heat Of The Night to producing promos and commercials. I found commercial production intensely aggravating; I can play well with others, but fielding constant revision requests from clients who didn’t know (a) what they wanted to begin with, or (b) what was possible with the gear we had on hand, was a time sink and a money loser. Production time was billable time, but it wasn’t uncommon for the sales department to insist that revisions (even endless ones) should be done for free so as not to piss off the client, or to whore out my services for free from the get-go to ensure they got the account. When my ass was on the line for how much time I billed, the latter was astoundingly frustrating. I won some awards, I made our low-power, low-budget station the first in the market to do its own 3D animation (though looking back at some of it now it almost laughable), and really went Right Out There in the area that I really fell in love with – on-air promotions. When you were the last-place station in the local ratings, you can all but literally throw shit at the wall to see what sticks. What could it hurt? You certainly couldn’t actually make the ratings worse. As limited as the gear seems from today’s perspective, it was actually a really neat sandbox to be able to play in. (The messes I made in that sandbox can be seen here.)

Eventually, the desire to get out of the Fort Smith market for reasons both professional and personal led me almost a thousand miles north to Green Bay for a couple of years, after which I returned home for entirely personal reasons (my father’s ill health and my impending marriage being among them). I wound up doing promotions again at KHBS, the local ABC station, for seven years, and then took a few years off to go freelance and be Mr. Mom. Since 2009, I’ve been working at KHBS, this time as a board op – see the whole full circle thing that’s going on with this story?

We’ll get back to KHBS in a little bit.

Funny-in-a-sad-sort-of-way: No broadcast station that I’ve ever worked at still exists in the form that it took at the time of my employment. Some have been sold. Some have changed affiliations to more obscure barely-even-networks than they were tied to when I worked there (i.e. WACY in Green Bay becoming a MyNetwork affiliate). Some have shut down altogether.

KPBI wins the trifecta by falling under the last three categories simultaneously. It was sold around 2000 to the now-defunct Little Rock-based Equity TV. The KPBI that I worked at, technically, no longer exists (replaced by a whole different station to whom the old call letters were assigned). And ever since the local NBC affiliate underwent a weird kind of market mitosis and become two separate entities controlled by the same company, it even lost the Fox affiliation.

A sale price of under a million for an operational television station is almost unheard of – it’s a fire sale price, justified by the station having ridden its low-power TV exemption from the digital transition pretty hard. It’d take spending that purchase price again to upgrade the station to HD specs. (On the one hand, does a Retro TV Network station – whose entire lineup is old shows in a 4:3 aspect ration – really need to be HD? On the other hand, if there’s one station in this market that can afford to spill that sort of cash on upgrading an LPTV station to HD, it’s probably KFSM.)

FCC rules prohibit common ownership of two stations in a market as small as Fort Smith’s, but KFSM and KPBI have petitioned for a “failing station” waiver, arguing that KPBI is in poor financial condition and the benefits of its purchase by KFSM would outweigh any “theoretical” harm to competition.

The FCC duopoly rules are being cited here; nearly every media company that has a finger in this market has already overstepped that. KFSM already carries MyNetwork on channel 5.2. KHBS carries the CW on 40.2 and 29.2. KNWA (NBC) and KFTA (Fox) are all sorts of in bed together. The real question is whether or not the FCC will let KFSM sneak by with a triopoly. There are only two other triopolies in the U.S., and they’re both in California; however, the FCC’s rules on this apply to full-power stations. KPBI is not now, and has ever been, full-power, which also allowed it to dance right past the digital transition. The article seems to imply that KFSM intends to make KPBI a separate entity, getting MyNetwork off of KFSM’s .2 subchannel and making it a real station of its own. (Maybe RetroTV will wind up as the new .2 on KFSM, or simply disappear in this market.) This would be no better and no worse than the awkward pairing of Fox and NBC stations under the same management (Nexstar).

Slightly intriguing: Sometime this month, KHBS will be shutting down its formerly-bustling Fort Smith operation, with the exception of sales staff and a very pared-down fragment of its overall news operation. The master control facility will be moved to Rogers, and channel 40 will become a satellite of channel 29, rather than the other way around. For those who wonder why virtually every station in this market has two channel numbers, it’s nigh-on-impossible to get a signal over the Boston Mountains, meaning everyone’s got to maintain at least two transmitter sites and, frequently, two studios and two hubs of sales activity.

For those wondering what the above paragraph has to do with anything, here’s the short story: I’m going to be out of a job very soon.

I’m not sitting on my hands – I’ve been sending out resumes and filling applications for just about every non-factory job in a hundred-mile radius, as well as throwing my hat into the ring for a few specific openings beyond that radius (such as a production manager position at AETN). Still, I’d be kidding you if I said that the world is beating a path to my door. With two (with Fox 24’s parasitic connection to NBC 51, arguably three) of the four major network affiliates having bailed out on the Fort Smith area, the number of outlets for me to ply the trade I’ve been in for my entire adult life is dwindling dangerously (hence the desperate grab for random office and clerical jobs).

If KPBI made a comeback, even if it was a Retro TV affiliate that rehashes KFSM’s news product at various points in the day, it’s tempting to see if I could get in on that action. Take what I’ve learned at every job since I left KPBI, and bring it back to KPBI. When I was at KPBI in the early to mid ’90s, the station was undergoing something of a renaissance. A lot of that was due to Fox snagging NFL coverage, which brought more money in, which gave the station the luxury of upgrading and expanding its signal (and, later, delivering its own offspring in the form of a bouncing baby UPN affiliate – which was also sold off and now carries Univision). Our crazy little anything-goes sandbox was suddenly a high-visibility station in spite of its own limitations (namely, a low-power analog signal that could just about be overpowered by the wattage output of the light bulb in the break room fridge). But even with the knowledge that we had to start acting more like a real TV station than a public access cable channel that just happened to have over-the-air transmitters, we quite frankly got away with crazier shit than the other stations in the area. Everywhere I’ve gone since then, I’ve tried to keep bringing the crazy, in a good way – I like making stuff look fairly unique with just a dash of “How did they do that?”, all without obscuring the message.

When you’re working for the underdog, the sky’s the limit – after all, you’re already hugging the ground when you start out. I’ve worked for Fox and UPN stations alike, and it’s a market position I’m familiar with. It’s also a market position I’m familiar with changing.

I know it’ll be a while before KFSM gets this ball rolling, gets the FCC approval, and pumps some new blood into KPBI, and I’m certainly going to need to do something for a living between now and then… it may take a year or more before they start hiring for the new station, assuming they don’t just assign everyone already on staff to double up (hey, it’s worked for every other station in the market). But it’s awfully tempting to think about trying to climb aboard and be a part of relaunching the old girl with a new coat of paint, knowing what I know now… and knowing intimately where the soft tissue is on the other fighters in the ring.

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