Saturday, August 18, 2018
Business

Auction nets USF $18.8M, but spells end to WUSF-TV

The University of South Florida has sold WUSF-TV's public broadcast license for $18.8 million, bringing an end to the station's run of more than 50 years.

The station will go off the air late this year, once USF receives its proceeds at the close of what is known as the Federal Communication Commission's "broadcast incentive auction."

Meanwhile, the future remains unclear for the station's programming and its 22 employees.

"We're reviewing our inventory and our options, and that includes looking at support from other public broadcasters. No decisions have been made," USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said. "We have some time to figure this out."

WUSF public radio stations will not be affected.

A few years ago, the federal government announced an auction in which TV stations could sell or trade their broadcasting rights, freeing up valuable space on the broadcast spectrum for data-hungry smartphones and other wireless devices.

Cellphone operators like Verizon Communications and AT&T promised they'd pay top dollar for the "vital" space, ideal for supporting the growing burden of cellular traffic.

Early numbers from the FCC estimated big potential gains for USF, up to $349.2 million for taking the station off the air completely. Other options included switching or sharing channels or doing nothing — but if the university didn't participate, the FCC retained the power to push the station onto a lower-quality frequency.

WUSF-TV was losing money and drawing relatively low viewership numbers. Meanwhile, television's place in the university's future was becoming a point of debate.

"I am not at all convinced that a traditional TV platform has as powerful a future reach as digital content that can be developed and 'pushed out' to future generations via rapidly evolving technology platforms," USF provost Ralph Wilcox said in an email to the university's chief of staff in fall 2015.

That October, the USF board of trustees voted unanimously to enter the auction.

"We were trying to align our resources with our mission and vision," Wade said. "Our core mission is student success."

The auction dragged on. Cellphone companies that had demanded the spectrum space showed little interest in paying up. As potential sale prices plummeted, critics called the auction a joke.

Stations still sold, including those of other universities. Central Michigan University, for example, said it expects $14 million for selling WFUM's signal in Flint.

Bidders will remain anonymous until the auction ends.

WUSF-TV broadcasts an array of shows, from murder mysteries and children's television to programs about nature, history and travel. A station representative deferred comment to the university.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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