TAMPA — Despite pleas to keep the station on the air, University of South Florida’s top officials voted to put WUSF’s spot on the broadcast spectrum up for auction — even if that means going dark for good.
The USF Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to enter WUSF in the Federal Communications Commission’s incentive broadcast spectrum auction. The auction allows TV stations across the country to voluntarily sell or trade their broadcasting rights to free up space on the spectrum for the growing demand for wireless mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.
The auction, held March 29, leaves multiple options for the station’s future, but selling all its broadcast rights to local digital UHF channel 34 and virtual channel 16 could bring millions to the university.
WUSF’s FM radio statio won’t be affected.
When it was launched in the 1960’s, the television station broadcast classes for students studying remotely. Now that those classes are streamed online, it contributes little to students’ academics, the trustees said.
“I cannot see a compelling reason for us to have a TV station now, and I believe in the future it would be even more unlikely a need would ever come up,” said trustee Stanley Levy. “If we elect to try to stay in business, it would cost us millions of dollars.”
Members of WUSF’s advisory board disagree.
Entering the auction was a good decision for the station, which has struggled financially in recent years, said member Sam Bell, husband of former USF president Betty Castor. He would have preferred, though, an option that would put WUSF in the auction only with the provision that it stay on the air.
“The university has to be careful when it says it doesn’t serve an academic purpose, because they own the station,” Bell said. “If it doesn’t do what they want it to do, the question is why aren’t they doing it?”
How much money USF would get would depend on whether WUSF continues to broadcast and, if so, where on the broadcast spectrum.
If the station goes off the air, the university would retain all proceeds from the sale, said USF Provost Ralph Wilcox. If the station switches from its high quality UHF channel to a lower quality VHF channel, USF would keep 75 percent of the proceeds.
If WUSF moves moves to a high-quality VHF channel, USF keeps 40 percent of the proceeds, and if it elects to share a channel with another station, it keeps 50 percent of the proceeds.
Ultimately, it will be up to trustee Nancy Watkins, the board’s representative in the auction, to make the final decision. The next six months will be spent meeting with business partners about potential ways to use the station, she said.
“I think I’ve gotten very clear guidance,” Watkins said. “If we go dark we go dark, or if we do nothing there will be a reason why we did that. We’re going to strive with the best information available to us to use this asset, whether converting it to cash or some other method, to benefit the university.”
In general, the programming on WUSF isn’t academic in nature, Wilcox said, citing programs like Sewing With Nancy and Sit and Be Fit. If the university sold the station it could use the proceeds, and the existing facility and equipment, to strengthen academic program for students and provide more hands-on learning opportunities, Wilcox said.
There are about 30 employees at WUSF that could be affected if the station goes off the air, but even then there are other jobs at the station that could be available to them, Bell said.
Still, Watkins and others shouldn’t make the final decision based on how the station operates now, he said.
“It’s subject to change,” Bell said. “To make a decision long term about the station based on the current programming is problematic.”
Sam Bradley, director of the Zimmerman Advertising Program and the School of Mass Communications, said the station currently has one or two student interns in its studio receiving class credit. The station is also used for the school’s advanced TV Production and Direction course, where students create a 30 minute documentary to be aired on WUSF if station officials say it’s up to standards.
Florida Focus, a two minute newscast twice a week, is also broadcast on the station. It’s filmed and produced, however, in the school of mass communications’ own studios.
Other digital platforms could get student content before more eyes, he said.
“We have not maximized our relationship with WUSF, unfortunately, on both sides, and it probably comes down to past leadership of the school; there are sometimes concerns about who’s going to be in control instead of what’s going to be best for students,” Bradley said. “That relationship just hasn’t been there, but we’ve all been working to improve it.”
Just how much money the university could make from the auction will be up to buyers such as T-Mobile and Sprint, said Tim Pecaro, a financial consultant hired by USF from Bond & Pecaro. There is also the possibility the station’s spectrum rights won’t be bought at all. Opening bids will be announced by the FCC in the next few weeks, he said.
“The greatest need for spectrum sales are in the largest markets and congested areas like New York City and Los Angeles,” Pecaro said.
That need isn’t as great in the Tampa area, but Pecaro said there are estimates that six stations’ spectrum rights could be picked up. WUSF is on a desirable frequency and produces high interference for other spots on the spectrum, which makes it an attractive candidate for a sale, he said.
Of the 62 universities in the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group for the leading research universities in North America that USF hopes to join, only 10 own their own TV channel, Wilcox said. Of those 10, nine are Public Broadcasting Service stations and only two operate in a market like Tampa where there is already more than one PBS station broadcasting; the University of Indiana in Bloomington and Texas A&M University, he said.
WUSF competes with the private, non-profit WEDU, which airs 75 percent PBS programming. WUSF offers 25 percent PBS shows.