Spectrum auction issues dominate CPB Board meeting

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Executives from more than 100 public television stations have participated in three webinars about the upcoming spectrum auction, CPB directors were told at a board meeting Tuesday.

And 22 stations have applied for a total of $658,000 in assistance from a $3 million CPB pool to help them research the ramifications of participating in the auction, scheduled for next year. The FCC, mandated by Congress, is supervising the auction to free up broadcast bandwidth for use by mobile devices.

Television stations can opt to give up all spectrum and stop broadcasting, share a channel with another station, switch from UHF to a VHF channel or decline to participate.

CPB is aware of as many as six public television stations considering going off the air, said Michael Levy, e.v.p., during the meeting, which was held by phone. All are in overlap markets served by other public TV stations, he said. CPB and PBS are concerned that the auction could create “white areas” without public TV coverage if stations in sole-service markets opt to relinquish all spectrum.

The webinars ran in November and December, with a fourth scheduled for Feb. 11.

Television spectrum could be worth millions of dollars to stations. A CPB Community Service Grant panel is examining what that influx could mean to the public TV system.

Ted Krichels, system development s.v.p., said “broad financial and policy implications” surround potentially significant auction revenues, and the panel of station leaders will continue to discuss those at upcoming meetings.

The group, which met most recently Jan. 27 and 28 in Washington, D.C., is looking at whether those proceeds would count as nonfederal financial support (NFFS). Members are also examining whether stations giving up a license would need to return CSG funds, whether a station in a channel-sharing deal remains eligible for a CSG, and station transparency surrounding auction decisions.

Group members agreed that both CPB’s statute and policy would not allow revenue received by stations from the auction to be counted as NFFS, Krichels said. The panel suggested that CPB policy adopt specific language regarding auction proceeds to avoid any confusion.

The panel also intends to recommend that if a CPB grantee ceases broadcast operations during its grant period, the station would be obligated to return all CSG-awarded funds for that period. It agreed that a station must control at least 50 percent of the channel capacity in a sharing agreement to remain eligible for a CSG. And it strongly recommended that public media licensees should be as transparent as possible with their community regarding their auction plans.

The panel meets again Feb. 25 and 26.

In other news at the meeting:

  • Directors approved a recommendation from the audit and finance committee to free up $1.5 million in digital funds. The money was set aside in September 2011 to help rural stations with equipment emergencies as the federal Public Telecommunications Facilities Program was being phased out. But only one station has since requested any funds. The money could go toward community emergency communications and alert work by public TV stations. Levy said. CPB has seen a “dramatic increase” in station interest for providing those services, he said.
  • CPB is beginning research for a “Future of Public Media Initiative,” Levy said. This “multiphase effort across two years” will include an examination of public media within the broader media ecosystem. Research will examine how changes in how people use media are affecting public media’s missions of education, journalism and civic engagement. The initiative will incorporate expert viewpoints and advice from inside and outside public media, Levy said. The report will be used to inform the corporation’s future goals and investments and to formulate “actionable steps for where the rubber meets the road.”
  • Director Howard Husock praised management’s decision to present $7.5 million to four public media newsrooms to honor journalists slain by terrorists Jan. 7 at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The grants were announced Jan. 8. Husock asked how the money was available so quickly. Bruce Theriault, s.v.p. journalism and radio, said the staff looked at news grants under discussion “and moved them along faster.” They also moved up renewal commitments “and bundled a lot of stuff into one significant announcement.” Theriault added: “We often make significant grants but don’t really talk about it. This was in the spirit of sending a loud, clear message about commitment to journalists at risk.”

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