It was standing room only last night in a lecture hall in MSU’s Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) Building for the first of two public forums held by the University to address the possible sale of WKAR-TV’s broadcasting spectrum.
Representing MSU were CAS Dean Prabu David, Provost June Youatt, WKAR Director of Broadcasting Gary Reid, and Bill Beekman who serves as Vice President and Secretary for MSU’s Board of Trustees. Although David explained that the format would involve brief remarks from the MSU representatives followed by questions and comments from the audience, hands and questions were raised immediately by audience members.
Reid took the podium to explain the known facts of the auction. As background, he explained that mobile carriers “like AT&T and Verizon” have, for some time, wanted additional bandwidth for their customers.
Specifically, these mobile carriers want the use of the upper part of the UHF spectrum, what we know as TV channels 14-51. They need contiguous bandwidth, which means that all TV stations currently occupying that part of the spectrum would need to be removed from the airways and consolidated lower on the spectrum in a process called “repacking.” According to Reid, the only way to clear sufficient bandwidth would be for 200-600 of the nation’s 1,780 television stations to go off the air.
In response to these carriers’ desires, Congress authorized the FCC to take action to free the airwaves sought by mobile carriers. As Reid explained, their method involves a “reverse auction” followed by a “forward auction.” (This is explained further below.) No station has any obligation to participate in this FCC Spectrum Auction, although offers have been made to all UHF stations.
MSU’s Board of Trustees, the license-holder for WKAR, voted in December to put the decision solely in the hands of President Lou Anna Simon. Simon has until January 12 to inform the FCC whether WKAR will be included in the auction. David, Youatt, Reid and Beekman stressed that taking this step acts merely as a placeholder and does not commit the University to putting the station in the auction. If Simon elects to include WKAR in the auction on the 12th, she retains the ability to pull the station from the process until the auction actually begins on March 29.
On January 12, a “Quiet Period” begins during which time stations are not permitted to discuss their plans relative to the auction, including participation or valuation. This is a legal requirement imposed by the FCC to prevent bias in the auction process.
In the reverse auction, the FCC will buy the stations that have chosen to participate. In a reverse auction, several sellers offer their property to a buyer and compete to reach the price the buyer will accept. In this case, the buyer is the FCC and the sellers are participating TV stations. Once the reverse auction is complete, the stations bought by the FCC will be sold to mobile carriers in a “forward” or standard auction, with a portion of the sale amount going to the owner of the relinquished station.
In the case of MSU, the opening bid of approximately $206 million would be the highest possible amount MSU could get for selling WKAR-TV’s broadcast spectrum. Depending on how many stations are in the auction, the amount the FCC pays to acquire WKAR-TV’s spectrum will drop to a figure Reid says is not predictable.
As I reported for ELi’s readers yesterday, Simon explained the workings of the auction in a radio interview based on a sale amount of $206 million with a possible resulting benefit, after investment of about $10 million a year. Since the $206 million figure is the highest possible amount, the amount of money coming in to the university from the auctioning of WKAR-TV’s spectrum may be lower.
Reid concluded by providing a number of facts about WKAR-TV. The station has 1.6 million viewers, is seen in nineteen counties, and has 17,000 active (financially contributing) members. He explained that 17% of WKAR-TV viewers watch “over the air” (OTA) which means that those viewers use an antenna rather than cable or other digital services. He also noted that about 25-50% of viewers across the Lansing area use the internet to access WKAR-TV programming. This is significant because Dr. Simon has stated that WKAR-TV’s locally produced programming could be made available via internet streaming if the station is sold.
Public comment was uniformly against the sale of the station. Common themes emerged, including the comparison of WKAR-TV’s airwaves to land, with one speaker stating that “once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.” Rick Boyd, a local minister, stated that “we’re all Native Americans now, and we’re being robbed of our land.” He added that PBS is “a way of making people equal, giving them access to education.”
Many speakers explained that they viewed WKAR-TV OTA (“over the air”), and many indicated that they live in areas where cable is unavailable. Ann Hansen offered statistics showing that OTA households are more likely to watch PBS, and that the number of OTA households is increasing as people decide to abandon cable television. In response to her question about how many audience members watch WKAR-TV OTA, nearly half the attendees raised their hands. This theme also ran through comments about potential lack of accessibility for low-income viewers who can’t afford cable and lack internet access.
Other speakers focused on the importance of WKAR-TV as a learning environment for CAS students. A man identifying himself as a 1975 MSU graduate asked, “What is the school for, if we take away one of their greatest tools?” A current MSU student asked the panel what would replace WKAR-TV for CAS students, adding that “We’re a land grant institution, which means to me that the focus should be on teaching.”
Dean David responded that “clearly some erosion” would occur if the station was sold, but that Simon has “made a strong commitment to content production.”
Membership and pledges also came up frequently as issues, with Laura Ashley saying that after decades of supporting WKAR financially, she believed that a decision to sell the station would be “breaking a contract” between MSU and the public. Several speakers also insisted that MSU’s President Simon be present at the next forum.
The next forum on this issue is scheduled for Monday, January 11, at 7:00 p.m. in Room 147 of the CAS Building, 404 Wilson Road. Parking is free in the garage behind the building after 6:00 p.m.