Amid Tragedy, WNET Stays On Air

The FCC said it would do anything it could to help broadcasters.
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WNET, Channel Thirteen, the nation's largest public television station, lost its brand-new digital transmission facility and tower, a $ 4 million investment, in the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center. It had just begun broadcasting digitally from atop the WTC in July. A few days after the tragedy, which also presumably took the life of WNET/ Thirteen engineer Gerard "Rod" Coppola, WNET began transmitting a low-powered analog signal from Alpine, NJ, (located 12 miles north of the George Washington bridge near the northern part of Manhattan). As of September 21, it was also transmitting via the full-powered public station WNYE-TV in Brooklyn, NY (Channel 25) Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. (In addition, the station has been directly feeding its signal via fiber optics to area cable systems, as had been the case prior to the catastrophe.) WNET was among the nine major stations that transmitted from the World Trade Center.

In the short term, WNET is working on extending the height of its tower at the Alpine site, which before the attack had been used as an FM radio transmission facility and is now also acting as host to other New York broadcasters, including WABC-TV, WPIX-TV, and WNJU-TV. The "Armstrong Tower" in Alpine (latitude 40.956N, longitude 73.932W) is 920 feet tall. WNET President Bill Baker said he was not sure how long the station would have to transmit in this manner. "Money is less an issue," he said, adding that figuring out how to get back on the air at permanent full power is the primary consideration. "We'll worry about the money later." The obliterated tower and transmitter were insured, although it's too early to know how much of the $4 million the station will be able to recoup. WNET's new Manhattan studios in the west 30s, which were part of an overall $35 million capital investment to convert to digital, were not affected by the terrorist attack.

The Red Cross used WNET's telephone system to handle communications during the immediate emergency, Baker noted.

Since the attack, "...the FCC said they would do anything they can from a regulatory perspective... that we would not be encumbered bureaucratically," he added. Asked if that means that WNET could receive a waiver from the FCC's May 2003 digital conversion deadline, if necessary, Baker said he thought that it did.

Not immediately affected by the tower's destruction is WNET's planned merger with Long Island public TV station WLIW, an arrangement that was announced on July 31 and approved by both stations' boards to help WLIW make the digital transition. The merger still needs to be approved by the FCC and the New York State Supreme Court.

According to WLIW President and General Manager Terrel Cass, the station had never planned to transmit digitally from the World Trade Center, and was always working towards obtaining its own digital transmitter at its headquarters in Plainview, NY, requiring an investment of $1.2 million. Rather, the impetus for the merger, Cass said and Baker concurred, was WLIW's being able to use WNET's digital production facility, which it will do as soon as the merger is approved by all remaining necessary parties. Cass cited in particular how WLIW would eventually share WNET's digital switching and tape machines. The merger would also allow WLIW to produce more original programming-in digital-than if it would go it alone. Baker admitted that WNET was planning to help WLIW financially to offset the cost of getting its own digital transmission, and it is still committed to doing that, notwithstanding its own financial need to replace what has been destroyed. Baker said approval for the merger could occur within the next six months.

According to Cass, WLIW, along with eight other New York State public television stations with which it formed a buying co-op, were several weeks away from choosing a vendor to supply digital transmitters. Baker said he didn't think WNET would now be participating in that group, but it was possible.

Cass conceded that it might be difficult for WLIW to raise funds while viewers' philanthropic contributions are so squarely focused on the tragedy. In fact, his station has suspended any fundraising for October. "Fortunately we had a very good pledge in August," he said. Baker said he thought that if WNET needed eventually to appeal to its viewers to replace the digital transmitter, they would respond because "Thirteen was blown up-with everything else."