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Will spectrum auctions disappear public TV?

In an important op-ed in public TV’s industry bible, Current, longtime public TV advocate (and spectrum guru) John Schwartz highlights a grim reality: the FCC’s recent Report and Order on spectrum auctions could jeopardize the future of public TV.

The problem: Public TV stations, like all other TV stations, can put their spectrum up for auction, and do what they like with the proceeds. Some of them are taking the opportunity not only to sell, but to close, as Elizabeth Jensen recently explained in the New York Times. Under the law and the internal regulations of public broadcasting, none of them has any obligation to do more than, say, pay their executives higher salaries with the money. 

And this despite the fact that American taxpayers have invested billions in the existence of a national network of stations with local presence and reach in 98% of the nation. 

Public TV, a headless horseman of a network, has no central planning entity, so there’s no one to coordinate how to maintain a national network of local stations that can air local news, Independent Lens,  or Downtown Abbey.  The Association of Public TV Stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS all asked the FCC to create set-asides to ensure that public broadcasting would make the transition alive. But the FCC declined to do so.

It’s possible, as Schwartz notes, to file a petition for reconsideration with the FCC.  Those petitions have to come from entities with standing in the ruling, which excludes the general public. But if any public broadcasting entity does file, the public can support that petition.

The decentralized, local character of public broadcasting was a deliberate choice—driven in part, in the 1960s, by conservative concern about the potential political force of a national non-commercial broadcaster. At pivot moments in the field that makes safeguarding the larger public interest in having such a service extremely difficult.  Users of the service may be in a critically important position at this pivot.