The Twelve Tenors

Why South Florida public broadcasters spewed Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras out the proverbial wazoo

At about eight o'clock on the evening of October 26, three elegantly dressed European gentlemen commandeered all of Dade County's public broadcasting frequencies and began to sing very loudly. For the next two hours, radios and televisions tuned to WLRN-FM (91.3), WDNA-FM (88.9), WLRN-TV (Channel 17), and WPBT-TV (Channel 2) reverberated with the sound of arias, Neapolitan songs, and assorted ditties from Broadway musicals.

The takeover wasn't entirely unilateral, of course. The crooners were none other than Italian opera legend Luciano Pavarotti and his Spanish compadres Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- the so-called Three Tenors -- in performance at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The concert, recorded on July 26, was the popular trio's third since 1990, and the Miami broadcasting execs fell all over themselves to run it: The first two performances -- Rome in 1990 and Los Angeles in 1994, both of which were also televised -- were fundraising bonanzas for public television around the nation. With visions of lucre, WLRN-TV leased the rights from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to show the performance and signed on its radio counterpart for a simulcast. Meanwhile WPBT secured its own rights to the program and brought in the small community station WDNA as its radio simulcast partner.

The scramble resulted in the highly unusual phenomenon of every public broadcasting transmitter in South Florida beaming the same thing at the same time. (Even Palm Beach County's public TV and radio station were in on the simulcast act.) Unusual and somewhat vexing: Public broadcasters pride themselves on providing their communities with diverse and original programming, the kind not often found on mainstream outlets. By contrast, the Three Tenors simul-simulcast may have been the greatest example of broadcast redundancy in local history.

The occurrence illuminates the growing competition between Dade's two public broadcasting television stations. "The failure of [WLRN and WPBT] to sit down and talk cooperatively about how they're going to work in this market is ridiculous," grumbles Don MacCullough, who was the general manager of WLRN for 22 years before retiring in 1995. "There's a better way to do things."

For many years the two stations rarely knocked up against each other. They were in completely different leagues. WPBT, founded in 1955, soon became the dominant regional public broadcasting force, filling its schedule with the solid fare found on its public brethren around the nation -- from Masterpiece Theater to Nova, This Old House to Frontline. WLRN went on-air in 1964. Because it receives half its funding from the Dade County School Board, it has traditionally focused on instructional programming, including shows like Sesame Street and Caring for Infants and Toddlers, as well as items tailored for classroom viewing.

Recently, though, WLRN has begun to dip more frequently into the mainstream pool. The stations' first high-profile clash came this past June, when WLRN aired Les Miserables during a fundraising drive; WPBT had aired the same show three months earlier.

WPBT president George Dooley perceived WLRN's decision as a gambit to encroach on his station's market and complained to PBS headquarters. "It would appear that the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market is about to become the site of an internecine struggle," he wrote. "Bolstered by fundraising specials from the Great Performances catalogue purchased from PBS, WLRN is now directly competing with Channel 2, both for viewers and dollars.... Even after 40 years in this sometimes crazy business, I find this situation too bizarre for words."

WLRN's change in direction is largely the design of Gustavo Sagastume, who was named the station's general manager at the beginning of this year. He's trying to diversify his station's programming, he explains, in order to give it a higher cultural and artistic profile in the community. To that end he has devoted prime-time scheduling to music programs: Classics with the Masters from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m. on weeknights, and The Music Place from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. weeknights. Les Miserables and the Three Tenors at Giants Stadium were part of that strategy.

"My attitude is, I have no bones to pick with anyone," maintains Sagastume, who says there's plenty of room for both stations. WPBT's honchos are also trying to adopt a publicly diplomatic posture, Dooley's letter to PBS notwithstanding. When asked whether the two TV stations can coexist peacefully, Craig Brush, WPBT's senior vice president of marketing, replies: "That question is loaded, in that it suggests there isn't peace. That isn't the case."

Former WLRN chieftain MacCullough begs to differ, and argues that WPBT has historically been dismissive of its smaller cousin. "The problem is that Channel 2 has always thought it owned the market and there should be no other stations," he complains. For years, he adds, WPBT refused to cooperate with WLRN on regional-grant initiatives and programming coordination.

In the past several weeks, representatives from both stations have met a couple of times to discuss how to better coordinate their programming schedules. "I can tell you that neither WPBT nor WLRN is interested in duplicating programming," says Sagastume. "In the best of all possible worlds, Miami and Fort Lauderdale households should have at least two [public television] items to choose from at any given time."

Clearly the discussions weren't early or substantive enough to prevent the Three Tenors fiasco. PBS, which owns the broadcast rights to the concert, allowed its member stations to air the show twice between 8:00 p.m. October 26 and next July 19 but didn't mandate specific dates or time. "The stations could show this any time they wanted," explains PBS spokeswoman Dara Goldberg. "PBS recommended that it be shown on October 26 at the beginning of prime time; however, that was voluntary. There was no penalty for not doing so."

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