By Erin Sherbert
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By Leif Haven
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By Kate Conger
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By Rachel Swan
There were scattered lamentations in October when longtime San Francisco broadcaster Jim Gabbert, perhaps best known for hosting a quirky late-night Sunday movie fest, announced that he was cashing it in. Gabbert and partner Michael Lincoln had agreed to sell their television station -- KOFY TV 20 -- to New York-based Granite Broadcasting Corp. for a tidy $174 million.
Affiliated with Warner Bros.' unremarkable WB network, KOFY airs a mix of cheap reruns and WB network offerings, the most popular of which sometimes worm their way into the lowest ranks of the 100 top-rated television shows. If all goes according to schedule, the sale will close July 1, and Gabbert plans to take a long vacation after 17 years as the station's primary owner.
But since Granite Broadcasting already owns KNTV, the ABC affiliate in San Jose, the company was required to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for a waiver to operate both KNTV and KOFY. Signals from the two stations overlap in some areas, so under FCC regulations, Granite needs government permission before it can buy KOFY.
Unless you have a sentimental attachment to one of the country's last locally owned stations, there's little reason to worry over the change in ownership. The waiver application would seem to be a mere formality. After all, KOFY appears destined to continue as an also-ran in local television ratings, feeding I Love Lucy reruns and episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess to its small audience.
But the pending sale is creating some unease at the Chronicle Publishing Co., which owns the city's biggest daily newspaper, powerhouse television station KRON, and the Bay TV cable channel.
In late December, Chronicle attorneys filed a petition with the FCC opposing Granite's request for a waiver, citing federal rules designed to dilute control of the airwaves by prohibiting ownership of stations in overlapping markets. Tellingly, of the dozen or so stations in the San Francisco market, KRON's owner was the only one to file a protest.
Chronicle Publishing has asked the FCC to either deny Granite's waiver, or delay acting on it until the commission finishes an ongoing effort to rewrite the rules for dual station ownership. In the petition, Chronicle attorneys note that more than 2.1 million people on the Peninsula will receive signals from both Granite stations if the waiver is approved.
Granting the waiver, Chronicle attorneys argue, "raises significant public policy issues involving the television ownership rules." Until the FCC sets a uniform policy for so-called "duopolies," the petition says, Granite should not be allowed to own two stations that would compete with KRON.
The Chronicle petition also argues that Granite has not shown any "extraordinary circumstances" that justify the waiver.
Considering the source, Gabbert has trouble taking that argument seriously. "They own a newspaper and KRON. Talk about concentration of control," Gabbert says. "People who live in glass houses shouldn't be throwing atomic bombs."
Through spokesman Ken Kaplan, the Chronicle company declined to comment on its petition. "Everything we want to comment about is in our document," Kaplan said.
If it gets the waiver, Granite will gain a station with rights to such WB blockbusters as Smart Guy and The Jamie Foxx Show. That will expand Granite's stable beyond shows like Nightline and Home Improvement, which air as part of the ABC lineup on its San Jose station.
Chronicle Broadcasting, on the other hand, will be stuck with only the NBC programming that airs on KRON, including ER, Seinfeld, and Friends -- three of the highest-rated shows in the country. Not to mention KRON's late-night news, which regularly battles KTVU (Channel 2) for first place among local viewers.
Throw in the Chronicle itself, and the company's cable station, and it's a little hard to feel sorry for Chronicle Publishing, says Don Cornwell, Granite's chairman and chief executive officer.
"It is a curious argument, and an irony I suppose," Cornwell says, "that the most dominant media player in that market would be the only one who objected to these two small stations trying to get a little more competitive."
Cornwell and Gabbert both say they aren't greatly troubled by Chronicle's opposition, and don't think the media giant will convince the FCC to deny Granite's waiver. No one else has objected to the waiver.
Cornwell also notes that the FCC has said it wants to increase minority ownership of television stations, and Granite is the largest minority-owned broadcasting company in the country.
Granite already owns 10 stations across the country in addition to KNTV, including a WB affiliate in Detroit, three ABC affiliates, three NBC affiliates, and three CBS affiliates. Still, Granite will remain a small fish in the large San Francisco market, hardly the kind of competition that should fluster Chronicle, Cornwell contends. "You'd think they'd have better things to do with their time and money," he says.
Clearly, Chronicle's current market domination does have its advantages. Almost no one, for example, knows that Chronicle is opposing the Granite waiver. That's at least in part because none of the journalists employed at the Chronicle, KRON, or Bay TV have reported it.