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Pennywise Broadcasting 

Probable pound-foolish results for Bahakel

You sometimes think you've heard it all in TV Land, but the decision to move a Columbia, SC newscast operation to function mainly out of Charlotte is a real head scratcher.WOLO-TV, the sister station of WCCB-TV in Charlotte, will likely be doing its 6 & 11pm newscasts from here by October, in a "merger" that's odd, to say the least.

What isn't odd is that owner Bahakel Communications, never known for being spendthrifts, are doing this as a cost-saving move. It will save close to $2 million it would have spent in Columbia to adhere to FCC requirements for digital conversion.

So, WOLO and WCCB will merge their news staffs. Columbia reporters will do their thing down there, zip material up here via fiber optics or satellite, then the newscast will be produced and broadcast from Charlotte. This is sure to mean some layoffs either here or there, as job duplication is unavoidable. As to who's getting the ax, no word yet as this unusual plan unfolds.

This "merger" has another name in news broadcast circles these days: "central casting." It's still fairly rare, but other stations across the country are trying it to save money or save struggling news departments by producing newscasts in central locations. And if you follow media news, it's not unusual these days to read about another small station with a number-three newscast dissolving the news department altogether. The post-September 11 economy has hit many broadcasters hard in the advertising revenue pocketbook, and this is simply the fallout.

It also shows you where the real priorities lie. Though broadcasters use the public airwaves for free and have an obligation to serve the public trust, we're in a climate that suggests if newscasts aren't making money anymore, well, they're expendable, too.

WOLO-TV's newscasts are perennially number three in the Columbia market, despite trying just about everything over the years except nudity or actually spending big money to improve their operation. So as one insider said to me about the change, "This merger may be ridiculous, but it will probably save a newsroom."

For TV viewers in Charlotte, all this doesn't mean much. But for Columbia viewers, a newscast taken out of town doesn't serve the viewers, no matter how much cash is staying in the coffers. How many times have I said it? Local is the key to local viewers.

The latest Charlotte publication to redesign its look is this very paper. As you may have noticed, Creative Loafing changed many of its font styles and art layouts in the past couple of weeks.

My take (and I'm not saying this to suck up to the bosses, believe me) is that the new look is cleaner and easier to read, although I'm not fond of the little "paperboy" logo that pops up here and there. Another major change in the CL look is still to come; let me know what you think when you see it in the next few weeks.

Within the last year, both the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Business Journal have also made major changes in their look and formats.

Drinks on the house and lots of cake. That's darned near a dream newsroom to me, but they were just some of the party favors as News 14 Carolina held a ribbon-cutting party at its new digs on Morehead Street June 27.

As local politicos and power types smiled, and media types sniffed around the sleek computerized newsroom, you couldn't help but be impressed at the physical plant. Flat-screen computers at every desk, and clean carpeting? Unheard of.

And who knows if it will change, but staffers were as pleased as the spiked punch to show off the place, and seem happy to be working there, too. Unheard of.

The 24-hour local newscasts debuted on Time Warner Cable June 14, and reach about 380,000 TWC customers in Charlotte region. Raleigh went on the air with its operation earlier this year.

Broadcasters are unhappy about a new bill in Congress that if passed, would charge radio and TV broadcasters spectrum-use fees and use them to help fund political-campaign advertising. In addition, broadcasters would be required to dedicate two hours of airtime each week to "political discourse" in the six weeks leading up to pprimary and general elections.

Talk on Capitol Hill about free airtime for candidates is nothing new, but this bill, with its idea that money should be raised to help political candidates, is something different. Sponsored by Senators John McCain, Robert Torricelli, Russell Feingold, and Rep. Marty Meehan, the bill would require broadcasters to pay approximately one percent of their gross revenues, or approximately $640 million, into a fund that would be dispersed to political parties. The parties would then give TV and radio advertising time to their candidates in the form of vouchers. To qualify, candidates first would have to raise a certain amount of money from individual donors.

Broadcasters are spinning this as a "tax" that would be passed on to consumers. Stan Statham, president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association said, "There's no such thing as a tax that citizens don't pay. If they want to tax broadcasters $640 million, that means the price of advertising increases, so the cost of goods increases."

The question is, what will happen to small-time, lesser-known political candidates that barely show up on radar screens due to lack of funding? Why do I think we would see them on radio or TV even less? We've not heard the last of this one.

LEST WE FORGET. . .It's the third big nomination (with no wins yet) for Bob Lacey and Sheri Lynch. WLNK-FM's morning team is up for the prestigious Marconi Award from the National Association of Broadcasters. They're up for Network/Syndicated Personality of the Year, and are in good company. Among their fellow nominees are Dick Clark and Tom Joyner. We'll find out who wins in September. . .The new weather face at WSOC-TV likes a slice of Wahoo with her cheesesteak, thank you. Meteorologist Tracey Lewis hails from Philly, and is a UVA grad. She filled Lanie Pope's vacated slot. . . A Wingate native was the winner of the Carolina Calling talent search. The UNC-TV series was shot in Charlotte and featured musical talent from around North Carolina. Singer Lily Montero was born in Cuba, raised in Union County and spent many years performing in New York City. While Wingate was her home when she first auditioned last fall, Montero moved to Nashville shortly after taping her TV appearance. Montero won a contract for 10 hours of studio time, on a no-charge basis, and a CD project of her own design to be presented to a select panel of national music labels. . .One of the nicest media relations folks in town is changing jobs. Smartly eschewing the Big Sleazy (George Shinn), Marilynn Bowler has left the Hornets and has become VP of public and community affairs for the Charlotte Checkers. . .And may we implore that the Bad Television Talent Police please arrest Jillian Barberie at once? Severe crimes are going unpunished.

Stay tuned.

Shannon Reichley's column runs every other week in CL. E-mail with story tips and feedback at Shannon.Reichley@cln.com

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