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WQEX is a television station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker. It currently broadcasts its digital signal on UHF channel 38, but through the use of PSIP, uses virtual channel 16, its former analog television channel number. It currently airs programming from ShopNBC.

History

Channel 16 in Pittsburgh started as WENS-TV, a commercial station that operated from 1953 to 1957 before going dark. The station became WQEX in March 1959, after WQEDmarker acquired the station as a secondary channel for airing educational programs. WQEX went dark again in November 1961, but returned to the air over a year later, in January 1963.

WQEX was one of the last stations in Pittsburgh (if not North America) to convert to color. For decades, the station broadcast with WENS's black-and-white transmitter. However, in February 1985, the transmitter broke down completely, and the parts required to fix it were no longer available. With limited time to restore WQEX to the air and avoid forfeiture of the license, WQED-TV diverted pledge monies to WQEX and also cut back its own broadcast hours in an attempt to lower its operating costs. The money realized from these efforts was applied toward acquiring a new transmitter.

WQEX finally returned to the air in the summer of 1986 in color and at a higher transmitter output power than during its years broadcasting in the black-and-white format. Station management explained their extended time off the air between programs with a vignette called "The Little Transmitter That Could... couldn't anymore." One Pittsburgh radio engineer said there was nothing little about the old transmitter, that it "was the size of a Port Authority transit bus".

Shortly after its 1986 rebirth, WQEX also became one of the first TV stations in the Pittsburgh market to introduce then-state-of-the-art Beta tape technology for airing its shows. Local programming by its competitors had been delivered on film, reel videotape and U-matic videocassettes. The Betacam professional format, which is different from the failed Betamax consumer format, produced a high-quality picture with crisp on-air resolution. The tape gained popularity among television stations not only because of its quality, but also because of its smaller size and ease of storage.

After WQEX switched to color, its schedule resembled that of a commercial independent station, with reruns, movies and Britishmarker situation comedies, often called "Britcoms". The station even had an on-camera host, Pip Theodor, who introduced the programs, similar to what was done on MTV and Britain's ITV.

What was notable about the station during this era was its nightly sign-off. WQEX ended each night with a comedy sketch involving some men trying to make it home from a bar after 2 a.m., set to the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's The Life of Brian. The sketch was accompanied by fake closing credits. Viewers could have their names in the credits by making a pledge to WQEX and becoming members of the "QEX Sign-Off Society."

The station's sign-on message also developed an on-air persona of its own, with the message followed by the 1955 Chuck Berry hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" introduced as a "morning wake-up call from Mr. Charles Berry."

When funding became tight in the mid-1990s, WQED began using WQEX to simulcast its own programming.

Digital TV

WQEX signed off its analog signal as part of the analog television shutdown and digital conversion on February 17, 2009, even though the deadline had been extended to June 12th. WQEX was one of three stations in the Pittsburgh market to still use the original signoff date, alongside WPGH-TVmarker and WPMYmarker.

Sometime between April 1st and the new June 12th deadline, WQEX will move its digital broadcasts to channel 38, which is currently being used by sister station WQED. WQED, which is moving its digital signal back to its analog channel 13, will sign off its analog signal on April 1st after the end of its annual PBS pledge drive in March. The early signoff for WQED will also give the station time to move its own digital signal to channel 13 while moving WQEX from channel 26 to channel 38.

Controversy

Due to a combination of high costs of continuing national programming production, bloated payroll expenses, and what the station's critics identify as a top-heavy management structure and a long history of mismanagement within WQED, the owner of WQEX, WQED's total liabilities at one point had mounted beyond $10 million, station debts were being paid four months behind schedule and approximately 100 of the 220 staff jobs at WQED were abruptly eliminated. A station once-respected for having originated programming such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and National Geographicmarker specials was quickly finding itself relegated to the role of a primarily-local producer of educational programming.

WQED began to seek a removal of the non-commercial educational status which restricted the WQEX license as early as 1996, with the intention of selling the secondary UHF station outright in the hope that an infusion of cash would solve some of the financial woes of the main station.

Its initial application to take WQEX commercial was rejected outright by the Federal Communications Commission, leaving it to pursue an alternate plan by which the station was almost sold to religious broadcaster Cornerstone Television in 1999. The original plan was to move WPCB-TVmarker from channel 40 (a commercial license) to channel 16 (non-commercial educational WQEX), with Paxson Communications buying channel 40 and converting it to a Pax TV affiliate.

This move, which would have led to a $35 million payout being split equally between Cornerstone and WQED, was approved conditionally by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000, after lobbying by Republican Senator John McCain on behalf of PAX's Lowell Paxson, an intervention which Senator McCain would later deny having made.

However, in response to vociferous concerns from members of the Pittsburgh local community, the FCC did impose one condition on the sale: half of Cornerstone's programming needed to be of educational value, effectively respecting the non-commercial educational condition of WQEX's existing license. Cornerstone flatly refused, abruptly backing out of the proposed deal.

Religious programming doesn't qualify as educational if it's "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views or beliefs," according to the FCC's ruling conditionally allowing religious broadcaster Cornerstone TV to take over WQEX and add educational content to the station. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abruptly reversed its position less than a month later removing the condition in response to intense political and legislative pressure, Cornerstone withdrew its application and the sale was cancelled, keeping WQEX as a WQED-TV simulcast.

In July 2002, the FCC abandoned its long-held position on instructional content, removing WQEX's non-commercial educational status outright in response to continued claims of economic hardship by WQED - hardships which the station has long blamed not on its own past management practices but on the local economic situation and the long-term decline of Pittsburgh's industrial base.

From 2004 to March 2007, WQEX brokered much of its airtime to America's Store, a discount shopping channel from Home Shopping Network, with WQED-TV presenting a total of three hours of required Educational/Informational (E/I) programming for kids on Monday and Tuesday mornings, plus repeats of WQED's news magazine, OnQ, on Monday mornings. In January 2007, America's Store announced it would cease operations on April 3 of the same year; WQEX switched its programming to ShopNBC on March 26. Rumors about a possible WQEX sale still come up from time to time.

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