WUSF-TV spectrum sold at auction; broadcasts end Sunday

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Fans of public television will take a loss this weekend. The University of South Florida is shutting down WUSF-TV after selling its broadcast space on the FCC spectrum auction.

The broadband industry will use the frequency range -- what we have known as channel 16 -- to transmit smartphone transmissions instead of public television. It means the end of Tampa Bay's WUSF-TV after USF ceases its operations on Sunday.

Bruce Downing is a WUSF viewer and USF alumnus, who complained that the university is contradicting its own policy. He cited the WUSF public broadcasting policy which states "…the University of South Florida System (USF System), as any university, holds a broadcast license in trust and its public broadcasting station(s) serve the public, not the organization which holds such license(s)."

"They’re violating their own policy statement saying the university holds this license in public trust for the benefit of the public and not for the benefit of the university,” said Downing. “So what do they do? They turn around and sell the license...I just can't imagine they would take this action the way they have."

USF owned the license. It was free to sell its broadcast rights. However, supporters of public television question the price the university received for selling its broadcast rights in one of the largest television markets in the nation.

"Folks who run universities are very smart but a lot of times they're not very clever about things," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge.   "It was really like a real estate bubble that collapsed."  

A channel in Santa Rosa, California initially priced at around $265-million sold for around $72-million. A Vermont channel priced at around $166-million sold for around $56-million. USF stayed in the downward auction as prices continued to drop.

"People started talking about ridiculous amounts of money -- $80-billion, $100-billion -- for these stations and there just wasn't enough money in the wireless industry," Feld added. "There's a tendency once you're in for the consultants and agents to say, 'no, no, sell; go ahead and sell.'"

USF's initial asking price at auction was almost $350-million. Its actual selling price was closer to $19-million.

The University of South Florida declined our requests to visit WUSF-TV and a spokesman said it is not making anyone, including President Judy Genshaft, available for interviews.  A USF spokesman sent us a statement noting it considered this choice seriously, and that it is aligning resources to fit its mission as a research university.

"In essence, the Tampa Bay market is losing half of its non-commercial programming, and I think that's a shame," Downing said.

Tampa Bay still has another PBS station, WEDU, and a WEDU spokeswoman sent us an email, which noted her station will pick up most of the shows that aired on WUSF.

“WEDU is picking up virtually all of WUSF's programming that WEDU did not already carry. With this, local viewers will not lose their favorite PBS programming,” wrote Allison Alvarez Hedrick, vice president of communications for WEDU. “WEDU polled viewers about their favorite programs and has in fact already incorporated most of the programs into the WEDU schedule as of Oct 2. This includes launching two additional channels for the 24/7 PBS Kids and Create TV.”

Here’s the full statement provided by USF:

“The Federal Communications Commission recently held a spectrum auction to help improve and expand wireless services across the country to meet the ever-increasing needs of American consumers for faster, higher capacity mobile broadband services. In the auction, TV broadcasters could voluntarily give up their current broadcast channel in exchange for a share of the proceeds from an auction of their channel to commercial wireless service providers to expand mobile broadband services. The University of South Florida considered this choice seriously before deciding on a course of action. USF is emerging as a top tier public research university in the southeastern region of the United States, and is aligning resources to closely fit its mission and focus. The proceeds from the sale of WUSF-TV’s spectrum will further advance USF’s initiatives.  The university will continue to operate WUSF-TV until October 15, 2017. NPR radio station WUSF 89.7 will continue serving as a resource for Tampa Bay and Sarasota, as will Classical WSMR 89.1 and 103.9.”