WINP-TV, virtual channel 16 (UHF digital channel 38), is an Ion Television owned-and-operated television station licensed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. The station is owned by Ion Media Networks. WINP's transmitter is located in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.
On cable, the station is carried on Comcast Xfinity channels 4 (WTAE, which broadcasts over-the-air on channel 4, is instead carried on channel 8) (standard definition) and 807 (high definition), and on Verizon FiOS channels 16 (SD) and 516 (HD).
Channel 16 in Pittsburgh started as WENS-TV on August 31, 1953. The station was Pittsburgh's first ABC network affiliate, broadcasting from studios at 750 Ivory Avenue, in the city of Pittsburgh's Summer Hill section. WPGH-TV broadcasts from this location today.
In a market that was dominated by DuMont O&O WDTV by default, WENS-TV got off to a great start, even fending off original channel 53 broadcaster WKJF-TV. However, it wanted to broadcast on the more lucrative VHF band since it had longer range, and competed with several local broadcasters for the channel 11 license that would eventually be awarded to WIIC Incorporated (a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which owned WWSW radio (970 AM, now WBGG), and Pittsburgh Radio Supply House, the then-owners of WJAS radio (1320 AM)). Even after the channel 11 license was awarded, WENS-TV contested the FCC's original decision. Additionally, a storm had damaged the tower in Reserve Township on March 11, 1955, leading to a channel sharing agreement with WQED until the tower could be fixed.
The lawsuits against WIIC Incorporated combined with the aforementioned tower problems proved to be too costly for WENS-TV, forcing the station to dump its locally produced programming and only operate for about six hours daily, airing only its network programming in pattern before leaving the air completely on August 31, 1957. By that point, the FCC reaffirmed the channel 11 license to WIIC Incorporated and they would sign the station on the very next day as WIIC-TV, now WPXI.
WENS-TV's fight with the FCC proved to have a major impact on the major network affiliations in Pittsburgh. WIIC-TV was planning to affiliate with CBS while locally-based Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which had purchased WDTV from the ailing DuMont Network in late 1954, was planning to affiliate the renamed KDKA-TV with NBC due to Westinghouse Broadcasting's strong ties to that network as well as KDKA radio's decades-long affiliation with NBC Radio. (Westinghouse had been a co-founder of NBC in 1926.) However, WIIC-TV's delayed sign-on due to WENS-TV's appeal to the FCC led to Westinghouse clearing the higher-rated CBS programs on KDKA-TV instead and eventually signing on as that network's primary affiliate in Pittsburgh. One year after WENS-TV shut down, WTAE-TV signed on and took the ABC network affiliation. It is possible that had WENS-TV survived and had moved to the channel 11 allocation that WTAE-TV would have affiliated with NBC or CBS instead, depending on which network Westinghouse affiliated KDKA-TV with.
The station became WQEX in March 1959, after WQED acquired the station as a secondary station for televising educational programs; as WQEX had a non-commercial license, it marked a rare instance where there was a legal television duopoly that didn't involve one station being a satellite station to the other, more than four decades before duopolies for commercial stations became legal. The new WQEX moved its transmitter from Summer Hill to that of its new sister TV station, with both stations broadcasting from a dual "candleabra" style antenna standing above a single tower at 4802 Fifth Avenue in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. WQED used its construction permit it had acquired for channel 22 to launch WQEX on channel 16 instead, with the Commercial Radio Institute eventually acquiring the WENS-TV permit to use for channel 22 to launch as WPTT (now WPNT) in 1978.
WQEX went dark again in November 1961, but returned to the air over a year later, in January 1963. For much of its early years, owing in part to the experimental nature of UHF television, the station was plagued by a weak signal, operating at 171 kilowatts visual, and 34.2 kilowatts aural, resulting in a Grade B signal over most of Pittsburgh. A power increase in the 1970s to 264 kW visual and 52 kW aural did finally provide a city-grade signal to the city of Pittsburgh. However, the city's outlying suburbs that were unable to receive the station clearly on cable received a spotty to non-existent signal.
According to MeTV, WQEX was the last station in Pittsburgh (and possibly the last in North America) to convert to color. For decades, the station broadcast with WENS's black-and-white transmitter. However, in February 1985, the transmitter broke down completely, and the parts required to fix it were no longer available. With limited time to restore WQEX to the air and avoid forfeiture of the license, WQED diverted pledge monies to WQEX and also cut back its own broadcast hours in an attempt to lower its operating costs.
Under WQED managers Lloyd Kaiser and Jay Rayvid, the new WQEX was set up as an almost autonomous station within a station. A new, more powerful NEC color transmitter was signed on the air for testing over the summer of 1986 at an authorized power increase to 660 kW visual, and 66 kW aural.
WQEX took over Studio C at WQED and built its entire studio, offices and technical space within the 36 by 32 foot area. It took six months from April 1, 1986 until launch on October 16, 1986 to build the station, train the personnel and organize the programming, all of this under the direction of Kenneth Tiven as general manager. Tiven, with years of experience in local television, produced a station unlike any other in the PBS system. Station management explained their extended time off the air between programs with a vignette called "The Little Transmitter That Could... couldn't anymore." One Pittsburgh radio engineer said there was nothing little about the old transmitter, that it "was the size of a Port Authority transit bus".
In 1986, WQEX was one of the most automated stations in the world. It was the first station to adopt the then-state-of-the-art Beta tape technology and the Betacart player for airing all of its programs. Local programming by its competitors had been delivered on film, reel videotape and U-matic videocassettes. The Betacam professional format, which is different from the failed Betamax consumer format, produced a high-quality picture with crisp on-air resolution. The tape gained popularity among television stations not only because of its quality, but also because of its smaller size and ease of storage. In addition, the station designed a database system for managing the program playout. It was this list which told the Betacart machine what to do.
In its return to the air, WQEX's schedule resembled that of a commercial independent station, with reruns, movies and British situation comedies (often called "Britcoms"). The station even had on-camera hosts. Pip Theodor was one several personalities who introduced the programs, similar to what was done on MTV and Britain's ITV.
What was notable about the station during this era was its nightly sign-off. WQEX ended each night with a comedy sketch involving some men trying to make it home from a bar after 2 a.m., set to the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's The Life of Brian. The sketch was accompanied by fake closing credits. Viewers could have their names in the credits by making a pledge to WQEX and becoming members of the "QEX Sign-Off Society." The station's sign-on message also developed an on-air persona of its own, with the message followed by the 1955 Chuck Berry hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" introduced as a "morning wake-up call from Mr. Charles Berry."
From 1986 through to 1990, the station's quirky persona stayed intact. It produced a 10 p.m. news program from Monday through Friday, in conjunction with the reporting staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper. Reporters were debriefed about their stories. These video clips were then played back in the Betacart automation system as a complete program. This innovation, called modular production, later became the keystone of several television news channels, including the Orange County Newschannel (OCN) and NY1. When funding became tight in the mid-1990s, WQED began using WQEX to simulcast its own programming as of November 1, 1997; some of the programming formerly exclusive to WQEX was consolidated into the WQED lineup at that time.
Financial troubles and transition to commercial licenseEdit
Due to a combination of high costs of continuing national programming production, bloated payroll expenses, and what the station's critics identify as a top-heavy management structure and a long history of mismanagement, WQED's total liabilities at one point had mounted beyond $10 million. Station debts were being paid four months behind schedule and approximately 100 of the 220 staff jobs at WQED were abruptly eliminated. A station once respected for having originated programming such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and National Geographic specials was quickly finding itself relegated to the role of a primarily-local producer of educational programming.
WQED began to seek a removal of the non-commercial educational status which restricted the WQEX license as early as 1996, with the intention of selling the secondary UHF station outright in the hope that an infusion of cash would solve some of the financial woes of the main station. WQED's initial application to take WQEX commercial was rejected outright by the Federal Communications Commission, leaving it to pursue an alternate plan by which the station was almost sold to religious broadcaster Cornerstone Television in 1999. The original plan was to move WPCB-TV from channel 40 (a commercial license) to channel 16 (non-commercial educational WQEX), with Paxson Communications buying channel 40 and converting it to a Pax TV affiliate with the call letters WKPX-TV. This move, which would have led to a $35 million payout being split equally between Cornerstone and WQED, was approved conditionally by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000, allegedly after lobbying by Republican Senator John McCain on behalf of Pax president Lowell Paxson, an intervention which Senator McCain would later deny having made. However, in response to vociferous concerns from members of the Pittsburgh local community, the FCC did impose one condition on the sale: half of Cornerstone's programming needed to be of educational value, effectively respecting the non-commercial educational condition of WQEX's existing license.
Cornerstone flatly refused, abruptly backing out of the proposed deal. Religious programming does not qualify as educational if it is "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views or beliefs," according to the FCC's ruling conditionally allowing religious broadcaster Cornerstone Television to take over WQEX and add educational content to the station. Although the FCC abruptly reversed its position less than a month later removing the condition in response to intense political and legislative pressure, Cornerstone withdrew its application and the sale was cancelled, keeping WQEX as a WQED simulcast.
In July 2002, the FCC abandoned its long-held position on instructional content, removing WQEX's non-commercial educational status outright in response to continued claims of economic hardship by WQED – hardships which the station has long blamed not on its own past management practices, but on the local economic situation and the long-term decline of Pittsburgh's industrial base.
From 2004 to March 2007, WQEX brokered much of its airtime to America's Store, a discount shopping channel from the Home Shopping Network, along with repeats of WQED's news magazine, OnQ, on Monday mornings. In January 2007, America's Store announced it would cease operations on April 3 of that year; WQEX switched its programming to ShopNBC on March 26. Rumors and actual proposals of a sale of WQEX came up from time to time, the most noteworthy of which was a proposed 2002 sale to Shooting Star Broadcasting, a company headed up by Pittsburgh native and former Shamrock Broadcasting president Diane Sutter, that was never consummated.
Sale to Ion Media NetworksEdit
On November 8, 2010, WQED entered into a deal with Ion Media Networks (the former Paxson Communications) to sell WQEX to Ion for $3 million. The sale was consummated (after FCC approval) on May 2, 2011, at which time the station's call sign changed from WQEX to WINP-TV, making it the first Ion-owned station without the Pax-era "PX" in its call sign (the calls stand for IoN Pittsburgh or, to note one news article on the sale, "WIN Pittsburgh Over"). WINP-TV continued to carry ShopNBC programming to fill their contractual obligations; however, on October 1, 2011, it began carrying Ion Television on its main channel, with Ion Life and Qubo on subchannels. This is the network's first over-the-air presence in Pittsburgh, the largest media market in which Ion and its predecessors had never had an over-the-air signal (Pittsburgh was the 24th largest television market for 2010–2011, according to AC Nielsen).
Rumored Fox affiliationEdit
On May 8, 2017, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that it would acquire Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The deal is expected to receive FCC approval sometime in the fourth quarter of 2017. The deal has brought concerns by Fox who see Sinclair as a competitor towards conservative-leaning news, as well as increased leverage by Sinclair on reverse compensation to air Fox programming.
On August 2, 2017, it was reported that Fox Television Stations was in talks with Ion Media to create a joint venture that would own their respective stations. The partnership was said to include plans to shift affiliations from Sinclair stations in favor of Ion-owned stations, such as those whose affiliation agreements are soon to expire. In Pittsburgh's case, this would include shifting Fox from longtime affiliate WPGH-TV to WINP-TV. This would mark the first Big Four television network affiliation switch in the Pittsburgh market since Westinghouse Electric Corporation purchased then-WDTV (now KDKA-TV) from the DuMont Television Network in late 1954 and dropped that station's DuMont programming in favor of CBS. It would also constitute the first threat of a Big Four affiliation change in Pittsburgh since Westinghouse mulled switching KDKA-TV to NBC during the 1994 United States broadcast TV realignment when its Group W arm was looking for a group affiliation deal. It is not known what would happen to Ion programming if a change is made, though it could move to a digital subchannel.
The chances of WINP-TV landing the Fox affiliation dimmed in October 2017 when Ion elected its stations to have must-carry status instead of retransmission consent, which the FCC ruled Ion must keep for three years. However, must-carry only applies to a main signal, allowing Fox to possibly affiliate with a digital subchannel on WINP-TV and other Ion stations. WPGH-TV is now expected to keep Fox programming, either as a Fox O&O or the status quo under Sinclair, leaving WINP-TV as-is for the foreseeable future.
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