Florida public TV station examines options as spectrum auction looms

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(Photo: WUSF)

(Photo: WUSF)

As the University of South Florida ponders relinquishing its public TV station’s spectrum, WUSF’s general manager is hoping to convince the school of the station’s larger importance in its community.

Trustees at the Tampa university voted unanimously Tuesday to participate in the FCC’s upcoming spectrum auction. The board has not determined how the public TV station will participate, however. WUSF could try to sell all of its spectrum and stop broadcasting, share a channel with another station or move from UHF to VHF.

The TV station is in an overlap market with WEDU-TV, PBS’s primary member station in Tampa.

The university has hired financial consultancy Bond & Pecaro to estimate WUSF’s spectrum value.

“We expect there will be good auction demand in Tampa,” said Michael Alcamo, president of investment banking firm M.C. Alcamo & Co. Inc., which is advising stations elsewhere in the country on auction planning.

The Tampa designated market area (DMA) has 19 eligible auction participants, Alcamo said, 15 of which are UHF stations. So some stations will need to relinquish or share channels in order to fit into the space available after repacking, he said. Also, coverage contours of Tampa broadcasters extend into surrounding DMAs, so an acquisition in Tampa could unlock channel positions in Orlando, Naples and St. Petersburg.

Members of the university’s administration will confer with trustee Nancy Watkins, the board’s representative for auction issues, to decide how WUSF will participate within the next 60 days.

JoAnn Urofksy, WUSF g.m., brought in Vinnie Curren, former CPB chief operating officer, to meet with her supervisor, USF’s chief marketing officer. “We presented the broader picture” of what the station means to the community, she said, adding that her supervisor was “very receptive.”

The dual licensee employs about 75 staffers, Urofsky said. “Our staff is doing all they can and punching above their weight to super-serve the broader community” beyond the university, she said. “The conundrum is that when the university looks at us, they are trying to see how we are contributing to student success.”

“Public TV has the opportunity to do so much more in the community, such as educational and engagement outreach,” she added. “I hope the university doesn’t overlook that.”

“USF will make a decision consistent with our mission and in the best interest of our students, faculty, staff and the broader community,” university spokesman Adam Freeman told Current.

WUSF is struggling financially. At an Oct. 6 board meeting, Nick Trivunovich, university v.p. for business and finance, told trustees that the station operated at a loss from fiscal years 2013 through 2015 largely due to depreciation on capital expenditures. Net cash flow was down $755,000 this fiscal year over last, mainly because of a principal loan payment. The station has an outstanding equipment loan with a balance of $716,000 due next September.

Tom Hoof, Urofsky’s supervisor, told trustees at the Oct. 6 meeting about revenue-generating opportunities for the university if it did sell WUSF’s spectrum.

“The television facilities can be redeveloped to provide an outstanding learning experience for students, and excellent video and digital production capabilities for USF and the Tampa Bay region,” said meeting minutes. Hoof also said the university could rent WUSF’s studios to a local television station and develop content to “enhance the brand reputation of the university.”

Consultant John Lawson is advising stations to consider the future value of their services to communities rather than “cashing out” for the auction, he said. Lawson’s consultancy is sponsoring a “Smart Spectrum Summit” Nov. 18 in Washington, D.C., about uses for spectrum including emergency and public safety communications.

“What this really comes down to is whether the license holder and community that the station serves values what the station is doing,” Lawson said.

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