Spectrum auction nets nearly $35M for two Pennsylvania stations

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WQED will earn $9.9 million from the spectrum auction by shifting to a lower frequency. (Photo: WQED)

WITF-TV in Harrisburg, Pa., will use $25 million in spectrum auction proceeds to bankroll three new initiatives, including a possible statewide news organization. And the $9.9 million going to Pittsburgh’s WQED for shifting to another frequency could possibly retire the station’s longstanding debt.

The stations are the latest to announce results from the FCC’s broadcast incentive auction, which is freeing up bandwidth for use by mobile providers.

WITF’s proceeds came from its agreement to operate under a channel-sharing arrangement, said President Kathleen Pavelko in an announcement Thursday. She told Current that the agreement doesn’t permit WITF to identify the partner station publicly yet.

The WITF Board of Directors decided the proceeds will be deposited in WITF’s endowment. Earnings will generate about $1 million annually for the station.

With the extra cash, WITF will create a media literacy program for Central Pennsylvania to help elementary, middle-school and high school students “interpret and use media wisely.” It will also launch the PBS Kids streaming channel.

Pavelko told Current a plan for increasing statewide news coverage is still under discussion. “We imagine expansion of the newsroom here in the capital but also town halls and panels held around the state,” she said.

The announcement said the expanded newsroom would cover state policy, politics and other topics of statewide impact, with a focus on digital platforms.

WITF determined the spending priorities for the spectrum revenues through a 2016 survey of more than 2,000 residents in Central Pennsylvania, according to the statement. Pavelko said the station is “gathering more input” from residents to “further shape and finalize its plans.”

At WQED, the cash comes from an agreement to move to a lower VHF frequency. The move “will be seamless to viewers,” it said in its announcement Thursday.

The station will remain on Channel 13 for over-the-air broadcasts, and its current channel numbers on cable, fiber and satellite carriers also won’t change. “We expect this change to have little or no direct impact on what viewers see and value,” WQED said.

The board is considering how to use the auction proceeds. Possibilities include retiring WQED’s debt 13 years ahead of schedule, reimbursing funds borrowed from the station’s endowment in the 1980s, and covering technical and equipment costs for the spectrum repacking.

WQED has struggled over decades with debt that once topped $17 million. In 2015 it approved a three-year budget overhaul that included a staff restructuring, layoffs and salary cuts.

The stations are among the first to announce auction revenues. WUSF-TV in Tampa received $18.5 million and will go off the air by the end of the year, it announced Wednesday. Central Michigan University also announced Wednesday that it sold its Flint station, WCMZ, for $14 million.

  • Brad Deltan

    Are these announcements just coming out haphazardly from the stations themselves, or is there any sort of centralized database where the public can get information about what stations have “won” the auction and how much $$$ they’re getting?

    • Dru Sefton, Current

      Hi Brad: Yes, all auction news must come from the stations at this point. The FCC lifted the quiet period this week, which is why you’re seeing the stories now. The FCC information will be released after the auction has totally concluded.

    • Dru Sefton, Current

      FCC spokesperson just told me the commission will release a full list of stations, their proceeds and how they participated in the auction (going dark, channel sharing, moving frequency) after the auction concludes. FCC anticipates several weeks from when the forward auction ends (it’s still ongoing) to complete the channel assignment phase, then a bit more time to close out auction totally.

      • Brad Deltan

        Looks like the forward auction ends on Feb.14th? Or is that just a quirk of how the dashboard displays upcoming auction rounds?

        https://auctiondata.fcc.gov/public/projects/1000

        Assuming it is ending on the 14th, I guess that means we could expect to see the FCC release all the info somewhere in mid- to late-March. Maybe April-ish.

    • Hi Brad, you may be interested in this spreadsheet that’s being maintained by two employees at KLRU-TV in Austin, Texas: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1aguZjdAo2On8B2cUUtyroLjBwXvKVjvJre-XdH4yaZo/edit#gid=0

      I should warn that Current has not independently confirmed most of the non-sale entries in this document. The staffers tell me that most of the information is coming from colleagues at the stations.

      • Brad Deltan

        Thanks very much, Mike & Dru. Fascinating stuff!

  • We need more of WQED for PA. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e225682844d6bea2c55300e2b6b723e056022fbdab7df897eb74440309af28e2.jpg This week, Audie Cornish of NPR news (left), anchored with Judy Woodruff (right) on the NewsHour. Good choice to replace Gwen Ifill? Well, let’s know it. Screen capture courtesy of NewsHour Productions – WETA. #PBSNEWS