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TV en espanol: the battle for Channel 44



For eight years the battle over WSNS Channel 44 was waged in the relative privacy of federal hearing rooms and courtrooms in Washington, D.C. But now the bitter fray has broken into the open, with throngs of Hispanic activists and politicians passionately taking sides.

At stake is control of the one Spanish-language-only television station in Chicago. The station's worth about $35 million, industry experts say. That would explain why its current owners--Video 44, a consortium whose most prominent investor is multimillionaire Irving Harris--have fought so hard to keep it.

On the other side is the Monroe Communications Corporation, whose president and leading stockholder is Robert Haag, cofounder of the Alberto-Culver Company, the hair-products concern.

In September the Federal Communications Commission stripped Video 44 of its operating license because of its programming from 1982 to 1985. For a portion of those three years, WSNS dropped its nonentertainment programming almost entirely, replacing it with a format that included adult films like Debbie Does Dallas. (The FCC requires that at least 28 percent of a station's programs consist of nonentertainment features like news.)

Harris and his partners dropped the adult films and converted to a Spanish-language format five years ago. Nevertheless, the FCC awarded the license to Monroe, which had lodged a request to take over Video 44's license back in 1982. But by the time the FCC ruled in Monroe's favor, Channel 44 had developed a large and loyal following, whose members want the station to remain under its current ownership. Led by several influential politicians and activists, they formed the Coalition in Defense of Access to Channel 44 and have convinced Mayor Daley and the City Council to intervene on Video 44's behalf.

"Some members of our coalition are enemies, but when it comes to Channel 44 we are a united bloc," says 26th Ward Alderman Luis Gutierrez. "Our feelings run deep. I don't care what they showed five years ago. Channel 44 has become part of our community's heart and soul."

The Hispanic community had no reason to take a side when the fight began. The issue then was simply whether or not Channel 44's programming was "serving the public good," for viewers of any ethnicity. Before 1982 WSNS has been a low- budget UHF station. In 1982 it became a pay-TV station. For $21.95 a month, subscribers could watch feature movies, children's shows, sports, and concerts throughout the day, and adult films from 11:30 PM to 3 AM. "We had to show the adult films because our one competitor started showing them," says Harris. "We were losing 5,000 subscribers a month to him. The adult films are what the public wanted."

Still, the adult films apparently bothered Haag. "I don't watch TV, but Bob [Haag] does and he was appalled that airwaves belonging to the public would be used for this kind of programming," says Howard N. Gilbert, a lawyer and part owner of Monroe. "The filth they showed was disgusting."

Harris discounts this version of events. "That's plain nonsense," he says. "They went after us because they wanted our license, not because they were offended by our programming. One of their partners told me that they looked at all the licenses to challenge, and they challenged ours because it looked the easiest to win."

Whatever the case, by the final 15 weeks of their license period, the only nonentertainment segments on Channel 44 were Health Field, which ran for an hour at six in the morning, and a political show called Illinois Press.

At Haag's request, Gilbert began to investigate. He discovered that Video 44's three-year FCC operating license would soon expire. Under FCC rules, Haag (or anyone, for that matter) could then challenge Video 44 for the station's license.

"Basically, you're asking the FCC to take the license from an owner because he's not properly serving the public," says Gilbert. "It's a long shot; at the time, the FCC had never taken a license from an owner for not serving the public. But Bob felt passionate about improving the airwaves." In 1982, Monroe filed the challenge.

The result has been an expensive roller coaster ride of rulings, appeals, and reversals. The first ruling came in 1985, when an FCC judge ruled in Monroe's favor (which ruling prompted Video 44 to drop the adult films and adopt its current format). The latest came in September, when the FCC ordered the license turned over to Monroe. Video 44 has asked the FCC to reconsider its decision; each side vows to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Over the years the case has hardened feelings, an enmity made more uncomfortable by the litigants' social relationships as leaders in Chicago's Jewish community. Manfred Steinfeld, one of Monroe's investors, is a prominent fund-raiser for several high-profile Jewish causes. Harris is one of the country's preeminent philanthropists, a man who gives millions to universities and to Jewish and antipoverty charities. Harris and Haag are even partners on a real estate deal. Most of the litigants have mutual friends; on occasion, they bump into each other at private clubs or social functions. For a while there was talk of reconciliation, when Video 44 offered Monroe money to drop the case. But that talk faded as the years dragged on.

"This fight has gotten personal," says Gilbert. "We've invested a lot of money in this case; our legal bills are in seven figures. Now we have the license. True, they get to operate the station until they exhaust their appeals. But we think we will win. It would be foolish for us to back out now."

After September's FCC ruling, Monroe appeared to have the upper hand. Then the Hispanic community--including such prominent groups as the Latino Institute and United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago--rallied to Video 44's side.

"The station's reputation has changed over the years," says Gutierrez. Indeed, few people remember it as a purveyor of porn.

"We are the lifeline of the Hispanic community," says Jose Lamas, the station's general manager. "Mr. Harris told me when he hired me, 'Jose, do what's good for the community and that will be good for our business.' That's what I've done, and it works."

Lamas figures the station reaches 95 percent of the Spanish-language households in the Chicago area, a figure that cannot be independently corroborated. Its programming is a mixed bag. It does run two hours of news a day, and it has lent its facilities for political debates, forums on immigration, and fund-raisers for victims of hurricane Hugo and the Mexican earthquake. But by and large it relies on game shows made in Miami, soap operas imported from Latin America, and old Mexican and Spanish movies to fill up its day. Almost none of its prime-time shows are produced in Chicago.

Nonetheless, Gutierrez took the case to the City Council, circulating a resolution (signed by 48 aldermen) asking the city to file a brief with the FCC supporting Video 44's right to retain ownership.

Now Monroe was concerned. Intervention by the city might convince FCC regulators that the public would suffer should the station change hands.

So they hired former 46th Ward alderman Chris Cohen, now a lawyer with Gilbert's firm, to plead their case before the council. But by the time Cohen got involved, the resolution had already been approved by the City Council's Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, chaired by Alderman Roman Pucinski (who, incidentally, once hired Lamas as a nighttime disc jockey at one of his family's radio stations).

"I went to Roman and I said, 'Roman, my clients didn't even know you had scheduled a hearing on this matter; you've got to give us a chance to tell our side of the story,'" says Cohen. "To his credit, Roman agreed."

The hearing was set for October 30, and Cohen showed up determined to show Kinky Ladies of Bourbon Street, one of the steamier movies featured on Channel 44 during the pay-TV years.

"When I saw what Cohen was doing, I was outraged," says Gutierrez. "Pucinski had gone out of his way to give him a hearing and he was trying to show us up. So I pulled out the plug on his video player. And he plugged it back in. I said, 'Hey, Cohen, are you back on the City Council now? Are you a janitor? What gives you the right to use City Hall property this way?' I was really steaming."

Gutierrez was also worried. Cohen had not been able to show the video, but he had made pornography the paramount issue; at least five aldermen were talking about voting against the resolution.

"After the hearing, Cohen came into my office and said, 'Well, you guys won,'" says Gutierrez. "As soon as a lawyer starts talking like that I get nervous. I said, 'Cohen, you've insulted the entire Hispanic community by making us look like we support pornography.' I cannot forgive him for that."

Cohen disagrees. "I didn't insult anyone," he says. "I was using the video to get the aldermen's attention. I wanted to show them that there were two sides to this fight. I wanted them to know that the FCC didn't just take the license away because they wanted to get at Hispanics."

Cohen and Gilbert assured aldermen and Hispanic activists that Monroe would maintain the Spanish-language format. "It was our idea to make it Spanish-language in the first place," says Gilbert. "We would even keep most of the staff."

But their pleas fell on deaf ears as activists vigorously lobbied the aldermen. The clinching blow came from Daley. "The mayor saw all those Hispanic voters and we didn't have a chance," says Cohen. "He sent out the word and the troops fell in line."

On November 7, the council met to consider the resolution. Only Ninth Ward Alderman Robert Shaw, whose south-side ward constituency includes few Hispanics, spoke against it. "This fight is between two corporations; it's got nothing to do with Hispanics," Shaw says. "The city shouldn't spend one dollar of taxpayers' money or one hour of corporation counsel's time getting involved."

At the meeting, Shaw denounced the resolution once. Then, after other aldermen spoke in its favor, he tried to denounce it again. This time, Mayor Daley cut him off, arguing that it was time for a vote. When Shaw protested, sound technicians cut his microphone's power. What followed reminded old-timers of countless City Council "debates" during the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

"Mr. Mayor, if you want to take the city's money and buy Hispanic votes that's your prerogative," Shaw bellowed, barely heard above the amplified voice of the clerk taking roll and the boos of Hispanics from the gallery. "But I won't stand for it."

The final vote was 41 to 1--Shaw's 1. Afterward, Monroe's supporters (noting that Harris would be the keynote speaker at the United Neighborhood Organization's upcoming $100- a-plate fund-raiser) complained that Hispanic activists were too chummy with the Video 44 brass. "I doubt any of these groups or politicians, particularly Gutierrez, will be receiving hard coverage on Channel 44," says Cohen. "I don't think they'll find it hard to get on the air."

Such talk, Gutierrez counters, is sour grapes. "From the start, Monroe has underestimated our support for 44," says Gutierrez. "If I was cynical, I would have supported Monroe. After all, they won the FCC case. But that would be wrong. I have to go with my community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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