Smith family seeks to take Channel 2 WBFF owners' move could shift WMAR

September 13, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The Baltimore family that owns WBFF-TV (Channel 45) has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to take over WMAR's spot -- Channel 2 -- on the VHF frequency.

More viewers can tune in to VHF channels (2 through 13) than UHF frequencies. Therefore, if approved, the unorthodox move would give the Smith family access to an audience almost double the size they now reach with WBFF, Baltimore's Fox affiliate.

It would also leave WMAR, the NBC affiliate, scrambling for a new channel on which to broadcast.

The Smith family -- David D., Frederick G., J. Duncan and Robert E. -- filed its petition on Sept. 3 under the aegis of Four Jacks Broadcasting. It asks the FCC, which grants broadcast licenses, to deny Scripps Howard its application for renewal and instead hand Channel 2's license over to them.

The family's strategy is to argue that because they are local, they would better serve the community than out-of-town owner Scripps Howard, which purchased the station in June for $125 million from Gillette Broadcasting.

"We believe that because of our lifelong residency in Baltimore and because of our commitment to the television business, we can operate Channel 2 in a manner which will better serve the public interest," David D. Smith said in a statement released yesterday. Mr. Smith is president of Four Jacks, which was set up to run Channel 2.

Neither the Smiths nor their attorney would elaborate on personnel or operational changes -- including WMAR's current affiliation with NBC -- if the transfer were approved.

Under FCC regulations prohibiting multiple station ownership in

a market, they would have to divest themselves of Channel 45.

Arnold J. Kleiner, president and general manager of WMAR, declined comment, saying he had not read the Smiths' FCC filings.

Broadcast attorneys and media law scholars contacted yesterday said they were not aware of cases where a renewal was denied and the license given to another party on such a basis. The licenses for WJZ (Channel 13) and WBAL (Channel 11) are also held by out-of-town corporations.

But a concept called "expectancy of renewal" could be a factor. One attorney, who asked not to be identified, said when the FCC considers a renewal application, as it is now doing with Channel 2, the agency looks at the company's record of public service in the community. Since Scripps Howard has owned the station only a few months, it cannot show a long record of such service here, which in theory could affect the decision.

The FCC declined comment.

The Smiths, whose Sinclair Broadcasting has owned WBFF since 1969, have recently invested heavily in the operation, adding a nightly 10 o'clock newscast and moving to new facilities on 41st Street. Under its petition with the FCC, Four Jacks proposes to build a 700-foot-high antenna on Rolling Road in Catonsville that would be used to transmit on the new frequency.

Sinclair earlier this year held up Gillette's sale of WMAR by challenging FCC approval of the license transfer, citing federal rules prohibiting new radio/television combinations.

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