Owner Frank Spain did his best to save his Fort Pierce television station, WTVX Channel 34. The devastating loss of CBS programming and network compensation in 1989 as part of the Big Switch had resulted in a 75 percent drop in his station’s value. He continued to produce local newscasts, heavy on coverage of the Treasure Coast (Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River counties), albeit with a much smaller news staff—down from forty to twenty-four. But a 74 percent ratings decline across the broadcast day resulted in advertising revenue losses that made it impossible to continue. Spain decided to sell out.
It wasn’t exactly a hot property. A deal was finally made with a relative newcomer to broadcast ownership, Elvin Feltner. His company, Krypton Broadcasting, owned two other television stations—WNFT Channel 47 in Jacksonville and another independent in Birmingham, Alabama—a minor league basketball team, and what he described on his balance sheet as a five-thousand-title film library worth nearly $173 million.
Feltner purchased WTVX for $8 million in a deal approved by the FCC February 1, 1991. Sean Sheedy of SDS Communications in West Palm Beach filed the only objection to the transfer, claiming that Feltner had defrauded several investors over the years. The FCC declined to investigate further, saying the objection lacked sufficient factual allegations. Those facts would start to appear soon after the transfer.
In a bold statement announcing the sale, Feltner said after he rebuilt ratings with “innovative programming,” he would approach ABC about shifting its affiliation from WBPF Channel 25—a scenario scoffed at by that station’s management. Feltner described his film library as “bread-and-butter pictures,” not blockbusters, but family fare. Some of the better-known titles were Madame Bovary and Vanity Fair, he said, wanting to use them as a base on which to build a twelve-station empire of G-rated television stations in Florida. Jerry Carr, veteran television broadcaster who later reviewed the titles, had a different opinion. “I think I found two titles that were recognizable.” Plus, he said, the actual films were physically very old, brittle, in bad shape.
Krypton was named not for Superman’s home planet, but the small Kentucky town where Feltner was born. Like the fictional planet, trouble came quickly to Feltner’s Krypton. In June 1992, a Dutch bank sued him for failing to repay a $19 million loan to Krypton, personally guaranteed by Feltner. In reporting on the Dutch bank’s suit, the Palm Beach Post uncovered several other clues to his business practices:
• A “run-in with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978,” claiming that Feltner and other officers with a company called National Investment Services “violated federal securities laws while selling films as tax shelters.”
• A $3.9 million award in 1987 by an Ohio jury “to 19 investors who bought film distribution rights to 23 films and television episodes from Feltner and associates. The investors said the films and TV shows could not be sold.”
• Regarding Feltner’s film library supposedly worth $173 million—“critics have claimed the library is worth far less and contains many films already in the public domain.”
One program syndicator even told the author that his company had airchecks of WTVX broadcasting movies rented from Blockbuster, complete with the FBI Warning!
One year later, Feltner took Krypton into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after six program distributors, including Columbia Pictures and Paramount, sued the company, claiming it owed them more than $11 million. Columbia claimed Feltner’s three television stations had broadcast 440 episodes of Who’s the Boss?, Hart to Hart, T.J. Hooker, and Silver Spoons over a nineteen-month period after the distributor terminated the station’s program licenses for nonpayment.
In June 1993 US District Judge Edward Rafeedie found Feltner personally liable for copyright infringements and awarded Columbia $8.8 million. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which reversed the verdict, finding that Feltner had a constitutional right to have a jury decide the amount of damages. Columbia vowed to seek a retrial, which took several years.
By December 1993, the Palm Beach Post reported that a federal examiner said Krypton was in “such a tangled mess that its two Florida stations, mired in bankruptcy proceedings, should be turned over to a trustee.” Feltner’s Florida television “empire” came to an end in October 1994 when his stations were sold on the courthouse steps.
Columbia’s long-awaited retrial finally happened in April 1999, and the jury returned a verdict of $31,680,000—at the time the largest statutory damages award for copyright infringement. “His broadcasting and entertainment empires in ruins,” wrote Eliot Kleinberg in the Post, “Clarence Elvin Feltner sits in the Palm Beach County jail, facing more than $45 million in personal debt and a six-month sentence for contempt of court.”
Of the $173 million film library: It was later discovered that the films were kept in an un–air-conditioned storage unit, and that most had simply deteriorated over the years, like Feltner’s grand plans.
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