We’ve reported recently that public television officials are raising the concern that the FCC’s planned spectrum incentive auction, intended to free airwaves for use by wireless broadband companies, could leave parts of the country without over-the-air public television access. The NY Times has taken note in a recent report:
“The incentive auction, promising the possibility of millions of dollars to broadcast stations that give back some or all of their 6 mHz of spectrum or move to another spot on the dial, will be open to commercial stations, as well. But the money could prove particularly enticing to public stations, many of which have tight budgets.
Public broadcasting officials worry that universities and states, including New Jersey, that hold public station licenses but are not primarily broadcasters may decide to give up some or all of their spectrum and use the proceeds for other needs, such as unfunded pension liabilities.
Early this month, the Association of Public Television Stations, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting released an unusually blunt statement expressing “profound disappointment” that the FCC had not built in protections to ensure that the auction would not create any areas without free PBS service. PBS viewers are particularly dependent on over-the-air television.
“The Public Broadcasting Act specifically mandates that public television reach every American citizen, everywhere in the country, for free, and for more than 60 years the commission’s own policies on spectrum reserved for noncommercial educational television have honored and safeguarded that mandate,” the statement said in part, adding, “We believe the commission’s rejection of this longstanding policy is a grievous error that risks breaking faith with the nation’s commitment to universal service for noncommercial educational television.”
The public television stations association had asked the commission to “work with us on a potential warning light, a stop light, a trigger” if it looked as if the last public station in a market would be bidding, “instead of letting the impersonal algorithm of the spectrum auction do what it was going to do,” Patrick Butler, the association’s chief executive, said in a telephone interview. He added that while the association was not certain that any areas would lose PBS service, “the commission didn’t seem very interested in acknowledging the possibility that it might happen, or working with us to make sure it didn’t.”
An FCC official, who would not speak on the record because planning for the auction is still underway, said the commission and Chairman Tom Wheeler “are fully committed” to preserving public broadcasting and, indeed, built in some financial help for those stations.
But the statute underpinning the auction process said that all eligible stations must be allowed to take part, and the public broadcasters’ proposal would have been inconsistent, the official said. “It’s hard to comment on and address a hypothetical” situation, the official added.
The commission remains open to “further refinements” in coming months, the official said, when it releases more details about how the process will work, including which markets will be eligible. The commission has said it hopes to conduct the auction in 2015.
New Jersey’s intentions are of particular interest to public broadcasters. When New Jersey got out of public broadcasting in 2011, it sold its radio licenses, but, with the potentially lucrative auction already looming, it retained the licenses of its television stations, which are now operated by the New York City public broadcaster, WNET.
The public television stations association said 57 public TV stations were licensed to universities and 18 to state entities. An additional 89 are community licensees, and six belong to local authorities. Many big cities have multiple public television stations. But eight of the top 30 markets have just one, the association said, including Houston, the 10th-largest market, and Phoenix, the 12th largest, each of which is operated by a university.
One public station has already said that it will take part in the process, then close. The money-losing KCSM, licensed to the San Mateo County Community College District, announced in May 2013 that it would give up its spectrum, after trying unsuccessfully to find a buyer. But other PBS stations, including KQED, will still serve the San Francisco Bay Area.
KCET-TV LA, which broke with PBS in 2010 and has struggled financially as an independent public station, said last year in an auditor’s report that surrendering half of its spectrum “could yield significant liquidity.” In a statement, the station added: “In today’s environment, it’s wise for all public television stations to be looking at every possible opportunity for revenue. KCETLink has contacted a consultant who is exploring what that situation would look like for us.”
Greg Giczi, president and GM of WNIT-TV South Bend, IN, said, “We live on the edge financially, and the opportunity to consider having an influx of revenue is definitely appealing.” But, he added, even surrendering a portion of spectrum could hurt the station if future technological advances require large swaths of airwaves it would no longer have.