Noncoms: FCC's Post-Auction Repack Threatens Debilitating Disruptions

Noncommercial TV stations were some of the biggest winners in the FCC's broadcast incentive auction, but associations representing noncommercial media are more focused on everyone else and what they said are "potentially debilitating service interruptions." 

"America’s Public Television Stations (APTS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS are working together to review and analyze the results, with the goal of ensuring that all Americans and their families continue to have access to public media’s educational programs, trusted news and public safety information services," said America's Public Television Stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS in a joint statement.

"Our primary concern is that hundreds of public media stations who chose not to participate in the spectrum incentive auction nonetheless will be impacted as a result of the mandatory 'repack." Mandatory repacking requires stations to move to different broadcast channels. In addition, 'bystander' television and radio stations, which share towers with stations that are being repacked, face the potential of operating at reduced power for months to ensure the safety of the workers implementing channel changes for other stations. These stations and their audiences are threatened with potentially debilitating service disruptions."

They are also concerned about the low-power transmitters that are not protected in the auction, which could affect "universal service" including rural areas. 

"A smooth repacking transition, with sufficient time and reimbursement funds, is essential to protecting Americans’ access to public media’s local television and radio content and services," they said. The FCC has given broadcasters 39 months, and Congress set aside $1.75 billion for the transition, with station moves beginning—phase one of 10 phased moves—in November 2018.

The FCC made a point of saying how much noncoms were benefitting from the auction. 

According to Incentive Auction Task Force chair Gary Epstein, noncommercial stations were "among the top individual group monetary winners in the auction, with most continuing to broadcast through channel sharing arrangements—as was the case with commercial broadcasters as well.

Two of the top 10 stations in terms of FCC payouts and a third of the top 30 were noncoms, he said.

The associations saw it a little differently, characterizing the noncom winners as "the fraction of public television stations earning proceeds from the spectrum auction" and pointing out that the payouts were not profits, per se. "It is important to note that the national public media organizations will not receive spectrum auction proceeds."  

"[B]y law, all proceeds will go to the nonprofit entity, or state or local governmental body that holds the license for that station," they said. "Such licensees are allowed to use the revenue in any nonprofit purpose they choose. These one-time-only proceeds may allow some individual licensees and stations to enhance their local educational mission, increase content and services to their community, and strengthen their financial foundation."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.