Nearly a dozen new partnerships, many of them packed with political government officials, are jostling for position as the competition to own Channel 14, Washington's long-dormant UHF television channel, gets under way today.
By late last week, proposals to build and operate the station had been submitted to to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 11 groups, whose members include the D.C. Democratic chairman, the deputy presidential campaign manager of Sen. Edward Kennedy, two aides to Mayor Marion Barry and a host of federal employes, businessmen and broadcasting professionals.
It may take the FCC several years to decide the winner of the competition -- with as much as $50 million in annual revenues by the end of the decade at stake.
The decision also will provide a test of the FCC's 1978 commitmednt to "increasing significantly minority ownership of broadcasting facilities."
Since the population in the District is 70 percent black, and there are no minority-owned television stations here, it is likely that the FCC's decision will turn on the minority participation in the partnerships.
The involvement of politicians and government officials in the bidding repeats a scene that has been played all over the metropolitan area.
Whether the prize is a local cable television franchise in Prince George's or Fairfax counties, or, in this case, the last available commercial television outlet in the District, the lure of tens of millions of dollars in profits has forged hasty marriages between politicians and relatively anonymous TV executives. These companies scramble for strong local contacts to promote their lineup of programs and to make often sweeping claims about their public service shows to impress those who award the franchises.
In the case of Channel 14, the companies are fighting for the first channel on the UHF dial and the last bit of unused "space" in the local television airwaves.
As WFAN (formerly WOOK-TV), Channel 14 aimed at a minority audience but went off the air in 1972 for lack of funds. At the same time, the station's president was accused of allowing the numbers racket to creep into religious programming on Wook radio, which his company also controlled.
For example, one instance cited in FCC records' was the use of "74th Psalm, 7th verse" as a tip for the "daily number" of 747. The station owner denied the charges, but the FCC revoked both his licenses.
In recent years, Channel 14 has been used only to help a station in Goldvein in Fauquier County piggyback its signal into Washington homes.
But new programming alternatives like "pay TV," or "subscription" television, have retrieved Channel 14 fromeconomic oblivion.
Under those formats, the station would not have to compete for advertising revenues with the other two independent stations in the area, Channel 5 (WTTG) and Channel 20 (WDCA). Rather, viewers would pay monthly fees to see first-run movies and other exclusive programs -- much like cable subscribers do today.
FCC officals say they had not expected the crush of applications that had arrived by today's deadline. But the 11 competing partnerships have some marked differences. While one group made up entirely of minority partners with little or no television experience, others have few or no minority members. Still others mix white TV executives with minority partners, who have strong political connections, television backgrounds or, in at least one case, $1 million in investment cash.
The real test of the winning partnership will be whether it can make the $2 million to $5 million investment that will be necessary for a transmitter, antenna, studio, offices and staff -- all the things that are needed to begin broadcasting.
Of the politically oriented partnerships, the one headed by the Robert B. Washington Jr., chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, provides a fascinating glimpse of the high-level connect that can make such a multimillion dollar gamble possible.
Washington brings a number of those connections. The 37-year-old black professional practices law with the elite firm of Danzansky, Dickey, Tydings, Quint & Gordon founded by the late Joseph B Danzansky, later chairman of Giant Foods Inc. and the National Bank of Washington. A member of the Democratic National Committee, Washington also sits on the boards of two corporations and owns pieces of a Northern Virginia subdivision and an office development that will rise over the Metro Center subway stop.
Washington personally negotiated a $1.4 million loan commitment as the initial financing for his Channel 14 group with the Great American Bank of Miami. Great American's chairman, Marvin L. Warner, also sits on the Democratic National Committee and served as President Carter's first ambassador to Switzerland.
Under the loan commitment; the partnership would pay the prevailing interest rate at the time of the loan is made. For the first 15 months of the loan the partners would make only interest payments, without reducing the principal.
Washington's TV partnership includes his sister, Barbara C. Washington, assistant city administrator for intergovernmental relations; Aida Luz Berio, Mayor Barry's Latino affairs director; Arthur McZier, a business consultant and the husband of a D.C. zoning commissioner; and Roderick K. Gaynes, a black Trans World Airlines official who organized a free trip to Paris this year for top city leaders.
The black business group also includes Kent Cushenberry, the community relations director for the Washington area operations of the IBM Corp. Cushenberry is named as president of the partnership, Washington as board chairman. The firm takes its name, Kent of Washington Inc., from Cushenberry's first name.
But minority control does not necessary mean minority programming, should the partnership win the license for the station.
According to the FCC aplication, the Kent proposal would make Channel 14 visible to the general public only during daytime hours. After 6 p.m., only paying customers would be able to pick up the signal -- presumably movies and exclusive sports coverage.
The station would put on a little more than an hour a day of news and public affairs shows, according to its application, including a talk show that Washington says he plans to host. But most of the programming would be subcontracted to a corporation that was formed last January by a member of the Danzansky law firm and serveral Miami investors with strong financial ties to other members of the Danzansky firm.
The bulk of the competitive pressure on the new station would not fall on the Kent partners, but rather on that subcontractor, General Broadcasting Corp., which would provide syndicated TV serials such as "I Love Lucy" and "Hogan's Heros" during the day plus the movies at night.
The strongest motivation for forming the Kent partnership, according to the partners interviewed, was to ensure minority control over Channel 14. All the partners in General Broadcasting, however, are white.
Those partners are Richard Danzansky, son of the late Joseph B. Danzansky; Louis Pollack, general manager of the Nautilus Hotel at Miami Beach; Irving Pollack, president of the nearby Newport Hotel, whose stockholders include members and former members of the Danzansky firm; and Marvin Willig, a partner in Washington's law firm.
Louis Pollack, Cushenberry said, "was the focal point" in putting the Kent partnership together.
From the FCC's standpoint, the growth of programming aimed at minority audiences in recent years has not been enough.
A 1973 D.C. Court of ;appeals decision helped to shape the FCC's position on ownership five years later. "The fact that other [stations] propose to present the views of such minority groups in their programming. . .does not offset the fact that it is upon ownership that public policy places primary reliance with respect to. . .content. . .editorial comment and the presentation of the news," the court said.
Robert Washington's FCC filing states, "The applicant will make time available for discussion of important public issues. Subjects will be selected on the basis of the applicant's belief as to the most important issues in the community at the time."
The FCC looks favorably on such proposals as Washington's talk show because it is an indication that the station's owners intend to "integrate" themselves into programming decisions and content.
Among the topic Washington said his show would cover are: Problems caused by the increase in the number of Caucasians moving into the District . . . immigration . . . the need for more coverage in the media of the problems in the Hispanic community . . . the need for better bus service and other means of public transportation . . . not enough jobs for youth."
Already pressed by his full schedule in politics and his law practice, Washington nonetheless stated on the application that he will devote a minimum of 35 hours a week to his TV role, which he described as "news reporter/producer."
He alsom may be branching out into other television ventures. Within a month of the Channel 14 application, Washington joined with Louis and Irving Pollack as well as brothers Richard and Stephen Danzansky in another partnership seeking a license to operate Channel 30 in Nashville.
Washington would not comment on his broadcasting ventures.
While Cushenberry said he is interested in the TV project, he said he would not leave his job at IBM if Kent of Washington is granted the license to operate the station.
"I majored in communications in college and have always been interested in this area. If this group is accepted, there will be an opportunity to provide programming and I wouldn't mind being a part of that," he said.
Neither Barbara Washington nor Berio thought that the application created any potential conflict of interest with their official duties.
"While I, granted, am a city official, I also have a private life," said Barbara Washington, whose job includes dealing with congressional committees and the U.S. Ooffice of Management and Budget on behalf of the mayor.
Berio said she sees her place in the venture as an extension of her official duties as an advocate for Washington's spanish-speaking community."I feel this is part of my interest," she said, " and it's part of the mission of the Office of Latino Affairs to get TV programming for Hispanics."
As to whether she might personally profit while pursuing this mission, Berio said, "Frankly, I don't know all of the technicalities of it [the partnership]. I haven't discussed with the mayor. It was explained to me that this is something that was not going to come to reality until years from now. At the moment I'm not really getting into any deal to receive anything."
Berio said she was recruited for her group by Barbara Washington. She said she was not required to make any cash contribution for her 10 percent share. "I only gave my name," she said. "They [the other partners] have plenty of people willing to put up the money. My contribution was getting the feeling of the people."
According to the FCC application, Jo Anne Wooten, another partner who is a paralegal assistant at the Danzansky law firm would serve as station manager. Gaynes, the local vice president for TWA, would spend 20 hours a week selling advertising, according to the filing. The remaining partner is Vernon R. Coleman, a beer distributor.
But Washington's group is not the only applicant with an interesting mix of partners whose programming would mostly be provided by outsiders.
Take the example of Community Services Broadcasters Inc. This partnership is headed by Ronald H. Brown, chairman of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia and deputy campaign director to Sen. Kennedy. Brown has no stated television experience, according to the group's application to the FCC.
The president of the partnership, Peggy Cooper, had an extensive background in television before Mayor Barry made her chairman of the D.C. Commission on Arts.
Though Brown and Cooper head an impressive ticket of minority participants, virtually all the financing for their proposal to build and operate a station would come from a Los Angeles-based corporation controlled by former cowboy star Gene Autry, according to a document filed with the FCC.
The company, Golden West Broadcasters, also would provide most of the programming in a "pay TV" format.
Most of the 11 partnerships, like Washington's, paid the $42 it takes to set up a corporation in the District capable of issuing stock, the value of which is set initially at one penny a share. Some groups also opened bank accounts, deposited about $1,000 and then filed a balance sheet showing the bank accounts as the partnership's sole asset.
After today's deadline for applications, the FCC will begin what may be a two or three-year process of holding public hearings to compare the merits of each applicant's proposal, after which it will determine which one is best suited for the station and the public interest.
Such things as financial ability, experience, minority participation, "integration" of owners into the daily affairs of the station, are criteria on which the commission ultimately will base its decision.
"The potential for subscription [programming] is really greater than going straight commerical," said Steven E. Wechsler, president of Marquee Television Network Inc., which distributes the Home Box Office service in the Washington area.
Wechsler has assembled a group of a white real estate investors and black and Spanish physicians in a partnership that is seeking the Channel 14 license.
He estimated that the 1.6 million households in the Washington market -- each of which might contribute $20 a month for pay television features -- add up to a $50-million-a-year potentional for Channel 14.
For each of the partners who lends his time, money, prestige or ethnic perspective "it's a crapshoot," Wechsler said.
As for the competitions: It's going to be a dogfight," he said. "There are 11 horses at the gate and the race hasn't even started yet. It's anybody's race at this point."