CPB will spend $3 million to give public television executives access to expert advice on the upcoming broadcast spectrum auction. The extremely high value of spectrum as appraised by an Oct. 1 FCC report, “Incentive Auction Opportunities for Broadcasters,” created a “considerable amount of confusion” among managers, said Michael Levy, CPB e.v.p. Previous estimates had been much lower. CPB now believes, based on conversations with general managers after the report was released, that “perhaps as many as 50 to 60” of those executives now feel compelled to “revisit their thinking” about whether to participate in the auction, Levy said. The topic generated discussion at a CPB/PBS General Managers Strategy Meeting Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Levy said.
• Public media's coverage of the conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip has some audience members questioning news outlets' objectivity. Last week, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler and NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos published a total of three blog posts about coverage of the battle between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, rounding up complaints from readers with diverging criticisms.
Getler focused on the PBS NewsHour's coverage of the conflict in his two reports. In the first, he fielded complaints about the show's selection of guests and its usage of the term "occupied." The second column concerned Gwen Ifill's interview with a UNICEF specialist regarding civilian casualties in Gaza, which Getler said prompted more mail than any segment since the conflict started. Schumacher-Matos took a broader view of NPR's reporting on Gaza within Morning Edition, All Things Considered and newscasts, touching on subjects such as guest selection and the religious affiliations of the network's on-the-ground reporters.
The FCC recently released the entire text of its Report and Order detailing rules for the upcoming broadcast spectrum auctions, making it clear that it intends to make no effort to preserve public TV signal coverage. The 484-page report, “Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions,” rejects the proposal supported by CPB and other leading broadcast organizations to preserve at least one station per geographic market. If you dive into this ponderous document, I recommend paragraph 367 and footnote 1090 (unfortunately, not a typo — there really are over 1,000 footnotes). In paragraph 367, the FCC states that it declines to “restrict acceptance of such bids based on the potential loss of television service or specific programming.”
The FCC further states that any such restrictions “could reduce the amount of spectrum available” to carry out the auction and undermine the “goal of allowing market forces to determine the highest and best use of spectrum.” The long and short of it is that if the entities that hold America’s 289 UHF public TV licenses decide to sell their underlying spectrum in the forthcoming “incentive” auction, that spectrum will be lost to noncommercial television forever. It need not be so.
Though the FCC’s incentive auction next year might give a short-term financial boost to a handful of public TV stations, it could erode the field’s ability to provide over-the-air signals to all of the nation’s homes, according to a new CPB white paper that outlines policy implications for local decision-makers. “Narrow financial calculations cannot measure the value of serving the educational needs of the nation’s children, providing trusted news, reliably delivering emergency alerts, presenting diverse viewpoints that would not otherwise be heard, and numerous other benefits provided today and in the future by the nation’s public media stations through over-the-air broadcasting,” says the report, “Facing the Spectrum Incentive Auction and Repacking Process,” released Thursday. “Unfortunately, while the spectrum incentive auction and repacking process would address one problem (the need for more spectrum for wireless broadband), it would likely do so at the expense of public media’s ability to meet the mandates of the Public Broadcasting Act — undermining communities’ ability to address the policy dilemmas they face as well as the nation’s need for universal service and local content and diversity of programming in an increasingly consolidated media environment,” the report added. CPB commissioned the white paper in April 2013 to help provide background and a policy framework for local pubcasters as they approach decisions about how and whether to participate in the FCC’s incentive auction, a voluntary proceeding that will be disruptive for broadcasters and TV viewers alike. Though stations can choose whether to participate in the auction, the FCC may move them to another channel during a process called “repacking,” which may require some stations to relinquish channels assigned to TV translators.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — CPB’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution Thursday urging the FCC to avoid allowing “white areas” that would lack public television coverage after the upcoming spectrum auction and channel repacking. The resolution followed a meeting Tuesday in which network broadcasters and CPB management met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to discuss the auction, set for mid-2015. It will clear bandwidth to be used by the burgeoning number of wireless devices. Television broadcasters face three choices: sell spectrum and get out of broadcasting, sell a portion of spectrum and share a channel with another broadcaster, or opt out of the auction. Vinnie Curren, CPB c.o.o., told the CPB Board Thursday that it has identified “half a dozen major communities” where auctions could occur and where the pubTV station “is operated by an institution whose primary mission was not public broadcasting,” such as a university or government agency.
Anxiety among public TV executives about channel repacking after spectrum auctions outweighs their enthusiasm for selling bandwidth, CPB s.v.p. Mark Erstling told corporation directors during their Sept. 17 board meeting in Washington, D.C.
CPB has commissioned Booz & Co. to research the effect of spectrum policy issues on the pubTV system for a white paper CPB will release early in 2014. The outcome of the upcoming auction to clear broadcast bandwidth for use by mobile devices is as critical to the future of public media “as the original noncommercial set-aside of public spectrum and the Broadcasting Act of 1967,” Erstling told directors. CPB’s greatest concern is loss of universal access to local public TV services, Erstling said.
As the FCC prepares to reshuffle the layout of the nation’s television spectrum for the repacking process, public broadcasters are girding for some difficult choices as they consider how to navigate a complex and potentially expensive transition.