WSBT South Bend Deal Fizzles Absent FCC Action

A deal to sell Weigel Broadcasting's South Bend, Ind., low-power stations WCWW, WBND and WMYS to Schurz’s WSBT has fizzled, according to WSBT President and GM John Mann, after the FCC was unable to act on it within a year.

The groups entered into an asset-purchase agreement in August 2008, with the deal requiring FCC approval. But the deal had a one-year deadline for FCC action. That deadline passed last week and the $22 million deal was nullified.

The low power stations are affiliates of ABC, The CW and MyNetworkTV.

An FCC spokeswoman said that, at press time, the buyer and seller had not yet formally withdrawn the proposal. "We have had no formal communication with the parties, so the application is still on file," she said. She had no comment on why it had not been acted on in a year.

When asked in an interview with B&C last month about the Weigel application, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski could not speak to the specific case, but told B&C he had asked his bureau chiefs to work through their respective backlogs.

That backlog drove Weigel Broadcasting President Norman Shapiro to stand out in front of the FCC last month holding a sign saying "Please Decide."

When B&C pointed out the protest and asked the chairman whether there was hope for the deal, he said: "[O]ne of the topics I raise with each of the bureaus and offices is backlog. The public has a right to expect that the commission will expeditiously decide matters that are before it. I have asked each of the different bureaus to look at their backlogs to the extent that they have them and take care of matters that are languishing."

A veteran communications attorney said that while the FCC staffers often view a nine-month trigger for a deal nullification as "overly aggressive," in the cases of one-year triggers, like the one on the Weigel deal, "typically, if you get to a kick-out date, they make a huge effort to get it out by that time," said the attorney. "In this case it just didn't happen."

One of the problems was that media consolidation critic Free Press formally objected to the deal, saying last September that one company owning four TV stations, along with radio and newspaper properties in South Bend, did not serve the public interest.

By statute, no application can be acted on before 45 days, and transfer applications are generally acted on in two or three months after that if there is no complication, faster if needed, said the attorney--"they are pretty cooperative." But once there is a petition to deny filed, he said, the FCC has to produce a written decision, so that ads two to three more months.

Also complicating the FCC backlog-clearing process has been the transition to digital, where much of the FCC's resources have been focused for the past nine months, followed almost immediately by the national broadband plan due to Congress Feb. 17, 2010, where much of the same "all-hands-on-deck" focus has now been put.