I have seen television's future, and its name is Bud Paxson.

And who is Bud (his mother called him Lowell) Paxson? Two decades ago, Paxson, operating out of the Tampa Bay area, was one of the founders of a little radio-based shopping service that eventually moved to television and mutated into something called the Home Shopping Network, which at its peak was selling around a billion dollars' worth of trinkets and trivets and tools every year. Departing from HSN under something of a cloud, he began assembling a small empire of his own, made up largely of distressed UHF stations (channels 14 through 69) that he picked up for a song.

Now, one could wonder just how much influence Bud Paxson might have on the mighty television industry, considering that hardly anyone outside of the biz has even heard of him. (I knew of his former connection to HSN, but had heard nothing since, until he took over the license for Oklahoma City's KMNZ-TV, which the original permittee had been unable to get off the ground.) And Paxson's five or six dozen stations, which under the inTV banner carry a mix of infomercials and religious programming, don't show up at all in the national ratings. But the Paxson network, not entirely by Bud Paxson's design, is ideally tailored to take advantage of current FCC regulations.

Maximum ownership rules were relaxed in recent years. The old rule set down a limit of seven TV stations, only five of which could operate on the VHF band (channels 2 through 13). The new rule limits an owner to stations which can theoretically reach a maximum of 35 percent of the national population. However, the FCC, still wanting to give UHF a break, counts a UHF station as having only half the reach of a VHF station. Paxson's all-UHF network could therefore cover 70 percent of the nation before running afoul of the regulations.

The other factor working in Paxson's favor is known as "must-carry". In general, cable operators are required by the FCC to provide space for any full-power television stations whose coverage area includes their system. In practice, this means that in 19 of the top 20 television markets, and about forty other cities, Paxson's local station is on cable, alongside the big boys like NBC and ESPN. Multimedia Cablevision, which serves the Oklahoma City suburbs, has duly parked Paxson's KMNZ-TV on an available channel and has begun including it in Prevue Guide.

These factors alone would insure that Paxson's inTV would get lots of reach for the advertisers who buy space. But Bud Paxson has even bigger ideas. He's offering space on his network to Hollywood producers, as an outlet for programs that the Big Four or the Smallish Two won't take and that don't fit into any cable network's plans. This could mean anything from game-show reruns to pilots that somehow missed the cut; Bud Paxson says he's more interested in selling the space than in judging the material. Some things, obviously, will not fly — for instance, the otherwise-ubiquitous ads for "psychics" and whatnot do not appear on inTV, since they conflict with Bud Paxson's religious beliefs — but if nothing else, the availability of the Paxson network means that the viewers may get, if not necessarily better shows, certainly different shows. And with earnings stagnant at the Big Four and the Smallish Two hemorrhaging cash, a sure sign of active risk reduction at its most paranoid, producers may find that the most expedient way to sell their shows is to go straight to Bud Paxson.

Now, the arrival of an alternative network that looks pretty much like what we already have may not be your idea of the Shining Television City on a Hill. It certainly isn't mine. And the late Newton Minow probably would not have singled out the Paxson network as an oasis in the Vast Wasteland. But the notion of building a network without having to pay more than lip service to the New York/Los Angeles axis — Paxson is still based in Florida — has an appeal all its own, and while hypertrendy Vanity Fair managed to ignore Bud Paxson in its "New Establishment" piece (October 1997) while fawning over Barry Diller, who is planning basically the same move with the same Home Shopping Network that squeezed out Bud Paxson in the first place, and which owns maybe a fifth as many stations as Paxson, I'm betting they won't make that same mistake next year.

The Vent

#70
22 September 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill