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.
Three national public broadcasting organizations are asking the FCC to change its spectrum auction rules to ensure that channel repacking leaves no community without noncommercial television. The Association for Public Television Stations, PBS and CPB are concerned that repacking, or the channel shifting that will occur after the auction, could create such “white spaces.” Public television’s mission includes universal coverage, providing every American household with access to free educational television content. In a Sept. 15 petition, the organizations asked the FCC to “reconsider and revise” its auction rules based on the precedence that the agency has long recognized noncom TV spectrum as protected and distinct from commercial. The spectrum auction rules make no distinction between commercial and public spectrum.
Public stations in Connecticut and San Mateo may be at the leading edge of a mass sell-off of public media assets in next year’s FCC spectrum auction. These stations have entered into agreements with LocusPoint Networks, a subsidiary of the private equity firm Blackstone Group, whereby LocusPoint shoulders the stations’ operating costs until the auction and then takes a significant share of the auction revenue after the station has sold its spectrum to wireless bidders. These deals have to be disclosed to the FCC, but their details do not. When the spectrum is auctioned, stations may receive tens of millions of dollars for their spectrum, especially in congested coastal areas. This money is unrestricted and can go back into community-based digital media, or into university gyms, or into a city’s general treasury.
Pubcasters who own broadcast towers are about to get regulatory relief thanks to a FCC decision that closes the books on a lengthy effort to revise rules governing tower safety and maintenance. At an open meeting Friday, FCC commissioners approved the changes while decrying the long road their predecessors took to get there. “This issue was first raised in 2005 during the Commission’s 2004 biennial rule review,” said commissioner Michael O’Rielly. The question that has to be asked is, why did it take the commission nine years?”
Though the Part 17 rules apply to all owners of “antenna structures” (FCC-speak for towers), the Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau promoted the changes as a boon to cellular and data services, which depend on hundreds of thousands of smaller towers across the country to meet ever-growing demand from consumers. By eliminating a requirement that tower owners conduct quarterly physical checks of the monitoring systems at all of their towers, the FCC “will save antenna structure owners millions of dollars annually,” said WTB representative Michael Smith.