High payment projections for the upcoming spectrum auctions are tempting public television stations to sell off channels – but for whose benefit?
The FCC’s October 1st report predicting payoffs of up to $570 million for stations giving up channels in coveted areas has spurred debate over the roles and responsibilities of public television stations in the auctions. Public media organizations worry that the redistribution that results from the auctions could result in “white spaces,” areas where public media programming disappears from the airwaves, in smaller neighborhoods and rural communities.
Right now public broadcasters are relying on 565 translators, or relay stations, to extend programming into hard-to-reach areas. Under the FCC's auction rules, these translators are guaranteed neither new channels nor compensation for moving should they be displaced by the auction. CPB has reported that “up to 200 of the translators may disappear because there will not be channels available for them once the television stations have been repacked."
The FCC’s auction rules currently make no distinction between public and commercial television, despite calls for protection from the Association for Public Television Stations, CPB and PBS. Neither has the FCC set requirements on how payments can be used. That means losing public media access with no explanation of how the funds gained from the auction will be benefit the public–not a great tradeoff for taxpayers.
Earlier this month, CPB announced that it was allocating $3 million to help public television executives weigh the pros and cons of participating in the auctions, and to aid in the development of participation strategies that won’t cut off portions of the population from public television access. Executives “feel they have little time to react to the numbers” released in the report, said CPB’s executive vice president Michael Levy.
In the coming days, Levy said, “public television stations will be making decisions regarding their participation in the spectrum auction based on their financial and public service interests.” Let’s hope that public service interests come first.