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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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USF considers closing WUSF-TV in FCC auction

TAMPA — The University of South Florida’s TV station could soon be pulled from the air if top university officials decide to put its spot on the broadband spectrum up for auction.

Today, the USF Board of Trustees’s will vote on entering WUSF in the auction, which could ultimately shut down the station in return for millions in payment to the university. The trustees’ Finance and Audit committee gave its approval to the idea Oct. 6, with just one member voting against the move. WUSF’s FM radio station would not be affected.

For the first time, in April, the Federal Communications Commission will hold what’s called an incentive broadcast spectrum auction, which will allow TV stations across the country to voluntarily sell or trade their broadcasting rights to free up space on the spectrum to serve the growing demand for wireless mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

TV stations that voluntarily enter the auction will have the option of sharing channels, switching from a high quality UHF channel to a lower quality VHF channel, or forfeiting a broadcast license completely and go dark.

WUSF broadcasts on local digital UHF channel 34 and virtual channel 16 — valuable spots on the spectrum.

The university is researching the ramifications of all options, spokesman Adam Freeman said, and remain on the table — including channel-sharing and maintaining current operations. Experts say this will be the last FCC spectrum auction for TV stations in the foreseeable future.

“USF will make a decision consistent with our mission and in the best interest of our students, faculty, staff and the broader community,” Freeman said in an email to the Tribune. “It’s also important to emphasize that even if USF chooses to participate in the FCC’s spectrum auction, the university can elect to remove itself from the bidding at any time without penalty.”

Entering the auction doesn’t guarantee a sale, either.

WUSF, which broadcasts to Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, has a prime spot on the spectrum that could bring in significant interest from bidders, USF’s new chief marketing officer Tom Hoof said in a presentation to the trustees’ committee Oct. 6. However, if USF chooses not to participate in the auction, or rejects every offer, the FCC could still move WUSF to a different, potentially low-quality frequency if it chooses.

The university launched WUSF TV in September 1963 to allow students to take classes via television, but the once innovative idea is losing money today.

In 2009, USF moved its broadcast courses to the Internet and now WUSF airs public broadcasting programming and shows produced at the university. According to the university’s presentation to the trustees’ committee, “viewers like WUSF shows including quilting, sewing, crocheting, Love Miss Fisher, Father Brown, Call the Midwife and Nova.”

WUSF reported a loss of $279,659 in the 2015 fiscal year, $182,564 in the 2014 fiscal year, and $224, 921 in the 2013 fiscal year. The TV station’s cash flow so far this year is negative $775,373.

The radio station, meantime, made money during the same period.

WUSF TV also has a $715,696 loan with the USF Foundation due next September.

The tax effects of a sale, and how many top research universities still operate TV stations, are questions still being researched by USF officials. They did point out to the trustees’ committee that the University of Florida and Florida State University have decided to keep their TV stations.

The FCC is accepting applications for the auction through November and December. USF has already hired financial consulting firm Bond & Pecaro to assess the value of WUSF’s place on the spectrum and legal counsel to represent the university in the auction process.

WUSF TV has a nine-member advisory board but it wasn’t clear Monday where they or station manager JoAnn Urofsky stand on the auction proposal.

“The board is fully in support of the direction that JoAnn Urofsky wants to go,” advisory board member Casey Fletcher told the Tribune.

But Urofsky and others on the board referred all questions to board chairman Mark Sena and member Sam Bell, husband of former USF President Betty Castor. Neither could be reached for comment Monday.

Bell told trustee committee members at their meeting Oct. 6 that the advisory board supports joining the auction but not going off the air. Instead, Bell said, the trustees should keep WUSF operating through channel sharing or moving to a lower-quality space on the broadcast spectrum.

The full Board of Trustees meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Marshall Student Center, Room 2709.

In the 1970’s, WUSF became a Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, making Tampa one of few cities with two competing stations airing PBS programming.

The other station, private, non-profit WEDU, airs 75 percent PBS programming while WUSF offers 25 percent PBS shows. Other WUSF programming includes local shows like “Tampa Bay’s Top Ten,” “Power Yoga: Mind & Body,” and “University Beat,” as well as documentaries and other nationally produced shows like “Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey.”

PBS content also can be viewed on the WEDU website and streamed online with Apple TV and other services.

Even if USF gives up its TV station, the university could produce content that can reach a wide audience, marketing officer Hoof told the trustees’ committee.

If WUSF does give up its broadcast license in the auction, USF could combine the remnants of WUSF-TV’s broadcast facilities with the USF Sun Dome’s production facilities and others into one combined entity run by University Communications.

That revamped production company would work with the Muma College of Business, The College of Arts and Sciences, Innovative Education, M.I.T., and the ZAP advertising program to give students more hands-on production training, Hoof said.

It would also produce all of the university’s videos, from on-campus athletic events to online classes, instead of having separate in-house facilities competing for resources, Hoof said.

WUSF’s building, near the Marshall Student Center on the USF campus, houses two, 3,000 square-foot TV studios that could be rented to a local TV station interested in moving, Hoof said. WUSF Radio would still broadcast from the facility. There are limited commercial production facilities in the Tampa Bay area, and the university could rent out the space or use it to create projects for clients, he said.

USF officials also hope focusing its resources on one digital production company will expand student training. The TV station has a few interns, but more could be added. The university would partner with a company like Home Shopping Network to act as a consultant on state of the art techniques and trends for both students and faculty and set up internships.

“Video content isn’t going away, in fact it is increasing,” Hoof said in his presentation. “Mobile devices are today’s delivery system like TV was in the past.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(813) 731-8093

@TBOadawson

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