MACLEAN’S REPORTS

The bountiful booty-and impending fate-of a TV pirate

JON RUDDY January 1 1969
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

The bountiful booty-and impending fate-of a TV pirate

JON RUDDY January 1 1969

The bountiful booty-and impending fate-of a TV pirate

MACLEAN’S REPORTS

ONE NIGHT in the spring of 1968 a New York State broadcaster named Lowell (“Bud”) Paxson spun the dial on his TV set and spotted a fuzzy picture on Channel 9. It was some kind of freak reception from CFTO-TV, up in Toronto, Canada. He settled back to watch Perry’s Probe and found it interesting — a guest was telling Norm Perry that God was alive and well on Jupiter.

At some point during the next halfhour, Paxson — who is lean, deceptively blank-faced and, at 33, president and general manager of Trend Broadcasting, Inc., operator of three radio stations and an independent UHF-TV outlet in Jamestown, about 50 miles southwest of Buffalo — experienced one of those moments of inspiration which, as Walter Cronkite used to say, alter and illuminate our time. Why not jack up the tower of Trend’s WNYPTV and pirate CFTO programming holus-bolus through the air?

Paxson promptly put this singular scheme into operation, spending $8,000 on a 400-foot tower atop WNYP’s existing 200-foot elevation. The Channel 9 signal came in like gangbusters, and Channel 26 began to bounce it out into southwestern New York State and parts of Pennsylvania. The result has been a local reversal of the U.S. culture barrage. Up to 500,000 Americans now join Paxson in

watching Perry’s Probe and such varied Canadiana as W5, People in Conflict and Country Music Hall — even Question Period, a simulated House of Commons debate. In all, the station carries 23 daily and weekly series from Toronto, easily topping the 55 - percent - Canadian - content regulation laid down for Canadian stations.

Paxson’s overhead would make such a communications pinch-penny as Roy Thomson green with lust. The programming from Toronto — 120 miles away as Uncle Bobby flies — costs Paxson not a nickel, while his coffers are filled by local sponsors whose messages supplant CFTO blurbs. This stratagem has transformed WNYP from a marginal operation (subsisting on old movies, cheap local shows and sponsor s’ syndicated institutional puffs) into a Canadian gold mine.

When someone engages in international TV piracy, can his comeuppance be far behind? Yes, as a matter of fact. Canadian and U.S. broadcasting authorities do not extend beyond national borders. In mid-August of last year Paxson was, however, restrained from relaying U.S. programming purchased by CTV. Buffalo’s CBS affiliate, infuriated by the prerelease of its own shows on WNYP, threatened a lawsuit based on copyright infringement. “Our lawyers said we probably would have won the suit,” says Paxson. “After all, cable TV picks up signals from the air and has been declared exempt from copyright law. But if we lost — wow! We could have been socked for millions.” Right then, WNYP went solidly Canadian.

CFTO - TV, reflecting, perhaps, president John Bassett’s grudging admiration for another wheeler-dealer, tacitly agreed to tolerate Paxson. “He came up here to ask us if we were going to sue him,” says program manager Jack Rüttle. “He was a charming son-of-a-gun with a cavalier idea. The situation was so unique that nobody knew what to do about it.” Paxson says Bassett verbally assured him he wouldn’t interfere. In return, Paxson promised to run all CFTO’s Canadian programs, to display CFTO’s call letters between shows and to run CFTO commercials for products that were locally available.

“I live with the good and the bad,” says Paxson with the air of a man for whom honor transcends mere expedience. “We even carried the Canadian political conventions. The Pig and Whistle is our top-rated show. Canadian football is also extremely popular. W5 has many international items of interest here. The only show I really can’t stand is River Inn. Well, it won’t last. I’m certain of that.”

He may be right — at least insofar as WNYP is concerned. Informed by Maclean’s of Paxson’s operation, the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists reacted with a combination of spluttering rage — performers can demand additional payment for U.S. screenings — and satisfaction that here, at last, was proof positive that Canadian shows appeal to U.S. viewers. ACTRA national president Victor Knight plans to thresh the whole thing out with CFTO. JON RUDDY