Few people even know that Channel 14 exists, and fewer still receive it on their television sets well enough to watch it. But the little noticed UHF television channel has nevertheless become one of the most desirable broadcast properties in Washington.
Because Channel 14 is the last vacant commercial channel allocated to the District by the Federal communications Commission, more than half a dozen individuals and groups, ranging from Mayor Walter E. Washington to a group of evangelical Christians, are attempting to stake, a claim on the channel.
It all started when a small educational station in Northern Virginia which has a temporary permit for the channel made the seemingly innocuous request that Channel 14 be reassigned from Washington to Fairfax City.
But that idea has provoked the ire of a number of area political figures and groups, Among them:
Mayor Washington, who argues that the city doesn't have enough television stations and would like to see Channel 14 become a minority-owned and operated station.
Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton and the Virginia General Assembly which have gone on record as supporting the Fairfax City proposal.
Public television station WETA, which fears the increased competition that another public TV station close to Washington would bring.
Two commercial broadcasting groups which say they would ultimately like to operate the channel as a black-oriented station.
One group that would like channel 14 to become a station oriented toward the area's growing Spanish speaking population.
A group called "Washington Christian Television Outreach" that wants to bring "wholesome Christian value, family-type programming" to Washington.
All these groups have offered their views on the channel to the FCC, which could decide what to do with Channel 14 in a few months, according to an FCC spokesman. More likely, appeals and infighting among the groups will stretch out the process for years, the spokesman said.
The controversy began about 18 months ago when Richmond-based Central Virginia Educations Television Corp., which owns and operates Northern Virginia's WNVT requested the channel be reassigned to Virginia and reserved for noncommercial, educational use. WNVT currently broadcasts its primary signal over Channel 53 and has temporary use of 14 for broadcasting a weak signal to viewers inside the Capital Beltway.
After all, WNVT argues in papers filed with the FCC, the whole purpose of the Virginia station's existence is to "fill the educational programming needs of the residents of Northern Virginia."
Unfortunately, many Northern Virginians have no clue that that is what WNVT is up to. That's because Channel 53 is currently assigned to the city city of Fredericksburg (55 miles south of Washington), formally licensed to the town of Goldvein in Fauquier County and transmits its signal from Independent Hill in Prince William County. Under FCC rules, Independent Hill, six miles south of Manassas, is about as close as WNTV is allowed to get to the Washington suburbs while still staying in the range of its "city of license."
It is not, however, close enough. According to Richard Bodorff, a lawyer for WNVT, most TV antennae in the area have turned their backs on Goldvein, and are turned instead in the opposite direction. That means better reception from the powerful transmitters of the major local television stations, most of which are clustered on the other side of the Potomac near River Road and Wisconsin Avenue and very poor reception from Channel 53.
Faulty reception is not the best way to coax the kind of money public television depends on from viewers' pockets. According to papers filed with the FCC, WNVT was "suffering from devastatingly poor viewership" until 1976.
It was then that the station was permitted to use Channel 14 as a "translator" station which relayed its signal within the confines of the Beltway. Channel 14 has "significantly (but by no means completely . . .) reduced the reception problems," WNVT reported to the FCC.
The arrangement, however, is a temporary one, that could disappear faster that dirt in a detergent commercial once the FCC approves a permanent licensee for the channel.
WNVT would like to make the arrangement permanent by having Channel 14 reassigned to Fairfax City. It was high time, the station suggests in its filings, that Northern Virginia, which "possesses a substantial population and represents a vital and unique political, economic, social, educational and cultural area separate and distinct from the District of Columbia or the Maryland counties of Montgomery and Prince George's" have a channel all its own.
Forget it, say those opposed to the idea.
"As mayor of the District of Columbia," Washington wrote, "I am strongly opposed to action by the Federal Communications Commission to move this allocated television channel out of the District. The District of columbia has presently assigned to it nine stations, four VHF channels and five UHF channels. Considering the fact that this is the capital of the nation, as well as a city of 722,000 persons, there can be little doubt that Washington, D.C., is presently underserved by television stations assigned to the District."
Considering that fact that the city of New York has a population of over 7 million and "no more than eight operating stations," WNVT retored, the District of Columbia was ahead of the game.
By far the most sensitive issue raised by Mayor Washington and other opponents to Channel 14's transfer to the suburbs is that of the need for a minority-owned station in the District. "If the channel is moved to Fairfax," Washington warned in his letter," . . . then that opportunity for members of (black and Spanish-speaking communities in the city) to own and operate a television station in the Nation's Capital will no longer exist."
Mindful of Channel 14's status as the last possibility for minority ownership, even Washington Christian Television Outreach has taken pains to inform the FCC that one of its three directors is black and that the group's president "traces his ancestry to the American Indian."
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As if to dispell any illusions that noncommercial television has somehow blissfully escaped the kind of competition that gives ulcers to executives of the commercial networks, WETA has also leapt into the Channel 14 fracas.
"WETA-TV may well not be able to survive a substantial reduction in that viewer support which would inevitably flow from a diversion of viewers to other channels," the station contended. In addition, it argued that "a third noncommercial educational station in the immediate Washington metropolitan area may be offensive to the public, particularly the contributing public who are already inundated with fund-raising activities pleading present poverty."
WETA is trying "to beat (WNVT) into submission," the station's lawyers shot back, thereby "depriving a million persons of their only real opportunity for a superior local broadcast."
The reassignment of Channel 14 to Fairfax is one of several proposals the FCC is considering as a solution to WNVT's travalls.
One of the other proposals would assign a brand new channel, Channel 56, to Fairfax City, leaving Channel 14 for the District. Such a step, Bodroff contends, would force yet another of what seems to be an endless procession of FCC rulings and would mean that the WNVT transmitting tower would have to be located somewhere between the Washington Monument and Woodbridge.
Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor local zoning officials, Bodorff said, would welcome a tower of the height necessary for good reception.
One FCC offcial contends, however, that a new Channel 56 would provide ample room for a transmitter, and "a perfectly clean signal - just not as good a one as Channel 14."
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If the FCC decides against WNVT, Channel 14 will again be up for grabs, and least one other group beside the Christian organization says it plans to apply for it. The Channel's reassignment would mean the end of WNVT's use as a translator channel. Such a situation, Bodroff said, would "cause serious financial problems that could result in the station's going off the air."