Selling or keeping spectrum is perhaps the most consequential decision that the current generation of public television station executives and their boards will ever make about the future of public media, not just in their communities but the nation as well. The FCC chairman’s postponement of the spectrum auction until at least 2016 is an opportunity for greater scrutiny of that weighty decision. Pitches from speculators and their FCC allies have focused on the one-time financial windfall to local licensees from selling noncommercial spectrum. However, balanced deliberation requires examining some key issues. Here’s my own short list:
Know when to hold ’em: Next-generation broadcasting technology will open up important new revenue streams for public and commercial stations.
Pubcasters Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Twin Cities Public Television and KCOS-TV in El Paso, Texas, were among the almost 700 broadcasters whose licenses were renewed en masse earlier this month, after the FCC quietly cleared many stations nationwide of indecency charges. The renewals had been on hold due to allegations that some of their programming may have violated FCC regulations barring broadcasters from airing indecent material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The complaints were thrown out as part of an agency effort to reduce the backlog of applications to be processed. The complaint against LPB was apparently over an episode of Doc Martin, according to LPB President Beth Courtney. “You’re kidding me” was Courtney’s reaction when she learned of the complaint’s target, she said. “There was nothing that I saw under any guideline that would be a problem,” Courtney said, adding that the agency’s rejection of the complaint “was the appropriate response.”
The complaint pending against Twin Cities was apparently over “blurred nudity” in an episode of Globe Trekker, according to station spokesperson Elle Krause-Lyons.
A proposal to require noncommercial radio stations to disclose program funders and share other public file records online has prompted widely varying reactions among public and religious broadcasters. In filings with the FCC, Native Public Media, an association representing tribal media organizations, warned that the change would be too burdensome and could lead to the demise of some of its radio stations. American Public Media Group — the largest owner of public radio stations in the U.S. — welcomed greater standards of transparency. Meanwhile, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters staked out a middle ground, proposing an exemption for stations with small staffs. Another major player among noncommercial radio broadcasters, Educational Media Foundation, objected to online disclosure of its stations’ program donors, as did Native Public Media.
An FCC-sponsored report projecting huge potential paydays for television broadcasters in next year’s spectrum auctions could prompt public TV licensees to reconsider decisions about participating in the complex proceeding. A full-power station in Los Angeles could fetch up to $570 million by giving up its assigned channel, while a similar property in New York might generate up to $490 million, according to a report by the investment banking firm Greenhill & Co. Issued Oct. 1 to spur interest in the voluntary proceeding, the report broadens the pool of prospective participants by projecting jaw-dropping values for TV channels outside of the top 30 markets. Full-power stations in Palm Springs, Calif., could bring to $180 million in the auction, for example, while a station in Providence, R.I., may be worth as much as $160 million, the report said.
If any part of the broadcast plant ever merited the label “necessary evil,” a top nominee would be the tower. Expensive to maintain, fraught with potential hazards, bound by an ever-growing web of regulations, unloved by neighbors and often located inconveniently far away, a pubcaster’s tower still serves as the essential link between its program service and its audience. In the early years of public TV and radio — before streaming and podcasting and cable and over-the-top video delivery — pubcasters and their audiences depended completely on the reach of the signals their towers could deliver. When broadcasting was a new and developing communications medium, those towers were much easier to build. As long as they weren’t in an airport flight path, the NIMBY factor was rarely a concern as public TV and FM stations spread across the country from the 1950s into the 1970s.