WNUV-TV owner a lightning rod for criticism

Some label Edwards front man for Sinclair

April 18, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

In an industry dominated by people with white skin, Edwin L. Edwards Sr. is an anomaly. The 47-year-old Pittsburgh businessman heads a company that owns seven television stations nationwide, including Baltimore's WNUV-TV.

This has made Edwards one of the few blacks who has broken into broadcasting's ownership ranks. It has also made him a lightning rod.

Edwards has been the subject of regulatory scrutiny and intense public criticism, much of which has come from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and other pro-diversity groups that would normally be expected to applaud blacks who have reached the executive suite.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a Washington public-interest law firm that focuses on communications issues, called Edwards a "sham."

Schwartzman, Rainbow/PUSH and others say Edwards is little more than a front man enabling Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. to bend federal station-ownership rules. Regulators are taking a close look at the management structure that binds Edwards and Sinclair. While other broadcasters around the country have similar arrangements, critics say it is Edwards who best typifies what is wrong with the system.

Edwards dismissed the charges as "mudslinging."

"I'm a very successful black man. You would think they [diversity advocates] would be behind us," Edwards said in the stentorian, bell-clear voice of the television talk-show host he still is.

To get a sense of why Edwards has received brickbats from some unlikely sources, a little broadcast-industry history is in order. For all the immense change that the TV business has undergone -- the rise and triumph of cable, the advent of satellite television, the endless merger-and-partnership barn dance that has redefined who owns what -- one rule has remained more or less sacrosanct: Thou shalt not own two or more TV stations serving the same geographic area.

This commandment is known in regulatory argot as "the duopoly rule." It is intended to ensure that no one person or company hogs channels and dictates the televised news and entertainment options of a community.

One way broadcasters have managed to tweak the duopoly rule is with arrangements called local marketing agreements, or LMAs. These agreements, which have won approval by the FCC, allow a broadcaster who already owns one TV station in a given city to buy the programming rights to a second station. The broadcaster does not own the second station -- that would violate the duopoly rule. However, the broadcaster does control programming of the second station.

Opponents of LMAs say such deals give one company control of two TV stations in the market, squelching diversity and defying the spirit if not the strict letter of the duopoly rule.

Sinclair using LMA

Sinclair has become virtually synonymous with the LMA, using it as a key part of its drive to become one of the largest and most influential station owners and programmers in the country. Edwards, a former news announcer and manager for Sinclair, is a favorite partner in these arrangements; his company, Glencairn Ltd., is listed as the owner of seven stations nationwide that are programmed by Sinclair under LMA deals.

In Baltimore, for example, Sinclair owns Fox station WBFF-TV while Glencairn owns the WB Network's WNUV-TV. Through its LMA with Glencairn, Sinclair controls programming for both stations.

An eighth LMA station, in Pittsburgh, is owned by Edwards in a separate, non-Glencairn entity and programmed by Sinclair.

Edwards defended the legitimacy of LMAs and said his critics are hypocritically singling him out. "On one hand, they're saying, `Do something about [boosting] minority ownership,' and on the other hand they're saying, `Block this guy and his deal with Sinclair.' "

Media Access Project's Schwartzman said it is Sinclair, a white-run company, that is being disingenuous about race.

"The function of enhancing minority ownership is to increase diversity of views and perspectives," Schwartzman said. "Here, Eddie Edwards sells or leases essentially 100 percent of programming time and control to Sinclair. There's no diversity; David Smith [Sinclair's chairman, president and CEO] is now essentially programming two stations in an area. Eddie programs zero."

Close relationship

As proof of what they see as Edwards' too-tight relationship with Sinclair, Schwartzman and others point out that Carolyn Smith (David Smith's mother) and her grandchildren directly or indirectly own 97 percent of Glencairn and that she and Glencairn have the same lender and loan officer. In addition, Schwartzman said, Sinclair has contractual arrangements to take over Glencairn's stations altogether if the FCC ever allows full ownership of more than one station in the same market.

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