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A new player for Pittsburgh

If Diane Sutter has her way, Pittsburgh will have a new independent station on the air by year's end, the seventh commercial station in the market. The station, she says, will air an eclectic mix of locally produced Pittsburgh-centric programs, syndicated fare and, possibly, repurposed newscasts from a competitor in the market.

Sutter is president of Shooting Star Inc., which intends to convert noncommercial WQEX(TV) into an ad-supported outlet. After a six-year battle, the FCC agreed to de-reserve the station, which is owned by WQED(TV), another noncom in the market, and allow WQED to sell it to Shooting Star for $20 million.

To make the deal happen, the FCC also agreed to waive its general rule that de-reserved channels must be opened to competing applications. Since the FCC concluded that WQED was selling the station to dig itself out of a financial hole and fund the digital transition, the de-reservation and waiver of the rule went hand in hand.

Sutter, a Pittsburgh native, sees a niche opportunity in the market for a station to "highlight some of the things that never get on TV about the community and the city." She envisions local shows that are both entertainment-oriented and informational.

There's strong interest on the part of syndicators. Asked whether many distributors had been in touch yet, Sutter replied, "Yet? They've been in touch for the last year. The frequency has picked up very recently. They were among the first to offer their congratulations" after the recent FCC ruling gave Shooting Star the go-ahead to buy WQEX.

There's a lot of syndicated fare to choose from, she says, from classic shows like Perry Mason
and Deep Space Nine
to first-run programming. Sutter says the new schedule will include both classic and first-run shows.

She hopes strike a deal with another TV operator in the market (both CBS and Sinclair run duopolies there; Cox and Hearst operate single outlets) to repurpose their news. "There's lots of great news product in the market. If you're not home when it airs, you miss it."

Sutter plans to hire a full-time staff of 25 to 30, plus part-timers and freelancers for specific projects. She's currently based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., but says she'll be spending most of her time in Pittsburgh as plans for the new station get under way.

Earlier in her career, the 51-year-old Sutter spent 15 years in the Pittsburgh radio market, including heading WWSW-AM-FM, then owned by Shamrock Broadcasting, the Disney-family broadcasting company.

Sutter also ran Shamrock's TV division as president. Her last role there was to sell off Shamrock's TV stations after Disney bought ABC. She ended up acquiring one of them herself: KTAB-TV Abilene, Texas, which she sold in 1999.

WQEX needs new studio facilities; as a WQE D satellite, it hasn't had its own in about five years. It does have must-carry protection on Pittsburgh's cable, covering about 81% of the market.

Sutter's deal to buy the station was opposed by local citizens and independent advocates for public broadcasting, urging the FCC to solicit applications for Ch. 16's license from other public-station operators. They have 30 days to appeal the FCC's decision.

The FCC ruling said the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Pennsylvania Public Television Network Commission, among others, urged the FCC to allow the sale. Sutter's agreement to buy the station was set to expire Dec. 31.

Two earlier deals to spin off WQEX fell through. A plan to sell to a commercial owner was rejected by the FCC six years ago. A 1999 attempt to turn it over to religious broadcasters in a three-way swap with Paxson Communications fell apart after many in Congress attacked accompanying FCC guidelines for operation of noncommercial stations by religious broadcasters. —Additional reporting by John Eggerton