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Robertson's Bid for UPI

As owner of the news service, he would join ranks of media moguls

By Guy HalversonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 1992



NEW YORK

PAT ROBERTSON'S successful $6 million cash bid for the bankrupt United Press International Inc. (UPI) provides significant new media clout for the controversial religious broadcaster and former conservative Republican presidential candidate.

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Mr. Robertson now joins the ranks of a small circle of influential multimedia moguls in the United States, including sportsman-broadcaster Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, with his film and press holdings, Laurence Tisch of CBS, and the Hearst family, with its financial interests in newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting.

UPI, which has long been considered the second spot-news wire service in the US behind the Associated Press, has had a history of financial difficulties; the agency slipped into bankruptcy twice in 1985 and then again last year. Robertson, whose winning bid for UPI came as a surprise, has a month to review agency records before completing the purchase.

But precluding the discovery of unusual debts - something considered unlikely, given extensive judicial review of UPI's accounting ledgers - Robertson is expected to press ahead with a reorganization of the agency.

The televangelist, who first gained national attention with his launching of the "700 Club" in 1966, will now have important media connections in both broadcasting and print journalism. Thus, he will have direct daily access to millions of households in the US and throughout the world.

Robertson insists he will not interject his political or religious views into UPI's news operations. But in a recent appearance on his Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson said owning UPI might be an "opportunity" to bring more people into contact with God.

The potential for proselytizing troubles media experts. "Were UPI to be strengthened under Robertson, it could be a very significant political force in the United States," says Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University.

Professor Stephens, who has done extensive research on wire-service operations, notes that in many parts of the US the United Press is still the primary source for news. UPI also remains strong within radio news, although far less so than in past years.

Still, Robertson - who launched a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 - is generally given high marks within the broadcasting industry for his entrepreneurial savvy. He first bought a UHF television station back in 1959, eventually parlaying that purchase into a media conglomerate now dominated by the Family Channel on cable TV.

The Family Channel is controlled by a partnership involving Tele-Communications Inc., a Denver-based cable company, and the Robertsons, plus employees of the network. The Family Channel reaches more than 55 million households, according to Paul Kagan Associates, which analyzes broadcasting companies. The Family Channel, which seeks to hold down the level of violence and sex in its programming, offers old shows like "Gunsmoke," and original shows, some of which have won critics' praise.

Meanwhile, the parent company controlling the Family Channel says that it will start up a new cable channel in January 1993 called The GameChannel.

Robertson's bid for UPI comes at a time when the American press in general is beginning to inch back from recession. After four years of financial under-performance, selected newspaper stocks are now capable of a sharp jump in earnings performance, according to Susan Decker, a financial analyst for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., an investment house. Advertising is rising. Sunday circulation, in particular, remains strong. That means that many papers will continue to look for the type of "wire" storie s supplied by UPI.

Still, UPI faces many hurdles.

Competition is intense. Many newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, now syndicate the "overview" global stories that were once the mainstay of the wire services. And overseas-based wires, such as Reuters, have won increasing support within the US.