The Twelve Tenors

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."

Sagastume says he interpreted the PBS recommendation as a command, and that had he correctly understood the directive he might well have chosen to run the show on another night. He points out, however, that simulcasting the Three Tenors on October 26 made perfect sense for WLRN because it came near the end of a ten-day fundraising drive at the radio station. "We were a little bit surprised to find the simulcast on WPBT and WDNA, because neither of them was in a fund drive at the time," he comments.

For his part, Craig Brush explains that although the timing didn't coincide with a fundraising drive, WPBT never considered airing the program at a later time or date. (The station solicited donations during the two-hour show.) WPBT had broadcast the first two Three Tenors concerts and "knew our viewers would be eager to see the most recent one," Brush adds.

Still, WPBT's decision to simulcast on WDNA seemed odd: The radio station, which is community-owned and not affiliated with WPBT, is principally known as a jazz station, specializing in Latin jazz. (WDNA recently began programming classical music, but only during the graveyard shift and only on a temporary basis.) The Three Tenors simulcast pre-empted the station's most popular music show Fusion Latina. "We always like to broadcast unusual things," reasons WDNA station manager Maggie Pelleya. "We thought it would be an appropriate thing for Hispanic Heritage Month to broadcast some classical music." Pelleya says the simulcast, for which WDNA received no money from WPBT, could presage more joint broadcasts between the two stations. "Hopefully in a more nontraditional vein," she adds.

Regardless of the official explanation, WPBT's choice of WDNA has fueled simmering rumors that WPBT is interested in acquiring the station. Both Brush and Pelleya deny the rumors and say the linkup was purely experimental: "A marriage of convenience," says Brush.

It could be argued that in their rush to beat each other out, WLRN and WPBT beat themselves. While the Three Tenors' first and second broadcasts reaped donations of $80,000 and $90,000 respectively for WPBT, the station tallied pledges of only about $28,000 during the October 26 show. Brush attributes the drop in WPBT's donations not to the competition with WLRN but rather to a number of other reasons, including the fact that the broadcast was up against Game 6 of the World Series, as well as a University of Miami football game that was aired on ESPN. "The Three Tenors also isn't unique, as it was in the past," he notes.

Meanwhile, WLRN radio received $4200 in pledges from its listeners (its television counterpart wasn't fundraising during the broadcast). "It was not as successful as we had expected," Sagastume admits, then hazards: "Maybe it had to do with the fact that other outlets were broadcasting it at the same time." He says he has already written a letter to Craig Brush suggesting that the two stations make an effort not to duplicate programming when they rerun the concert sometime next year.


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