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Offer for TV channel is too quick, too cheap

The city of St. Petersburg is on the verge of selling the license for its analog television channel for a song — a mere $500,000 — as it switches to a digital station.

But the potential sale and the appearance of a rush to close the deal has at least one resident questioning the process.

In a Nov. 4 email to Mayor Bill Foster, pastor Sarah Edwards of the Crossing Point Foursquare International Church at 919 18th St. S asked why residents were not given notice of the city's intent to sell "our TV station."

"There are strict guidelines on how to sell a television station," she said. "You can't sell until you make a public announcement of the intent to sell."

Edwards, 70, a native of St. Petersburg, returned here after nearly 50 years in the greater Atlanta area. During that time, she was a television producer at a host of stations and led television workshops. She served as editor for Accessing Access, a quarterly newsletter for broadcast producers in the Southeast, and was affiliated with the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers.

"It's illegal what they're doing," said Edwards. "It (the station) belongs to the residents."

She is correct that public notice is required, according to two FCC officials.

According to Krista Witanowsky, a legal adviser at the FCC, the city has not submitted an application, which would indicate a sale is being negotiated. After an application is filed, the public has 30 days to respond and potential buyers have to give local notice.

WSPF-Ch. 35, broadcasts City Council meetings, public service announcements and a host of other city programs.

The council voted in July to hire Hadden & Associates Inc. to sell the license and construction permit for WSPF.

An item on the July 14 council agenda said the broker's fee would be 5 percent of the first $3 million, but the fee would go up if the sale was for a greater amount.

So why is the city settling for just $500,000?

During a council committee meeting last week, Elizabeth Herendeen, the city's marketing and communications director, said the city had found a buyer — Prime Time Partners, a Miami Lakes company that is requesting a response by Tuesday.

The sale of the license for Channel 35 was a late addition to the committee's agenda. The council is set to vote Monday on the approval of the sale.

The firm initially received an offer of $300,000 from a Michigan company, but city officials instructed Hadden to seek higher offers.

By going through a broker that did not notify the public that the station was for sale, did the city technically break FCC rules?

The only mention of the sale was apparently a Times news brief on Nov. 4, after Prime Time had submitted an offer.

City officials say it's a good time to sell a depreciating asset. The city intends to go digital and would rather not spend $250,000 to convert the analog signal. But according to FCC rules, the city's deadline to implement that change is September 2015. So what's the rush?

Edwards is concerned that residents were squeezed out of the process when the city hired the media broker. She said she's interested in putting a station in Midtown with hopes of establishing a Christian community empowerment center.

She said she and a small group of investors have a contract to buy "the old Sydney Harding building at Ninth Avenue S and 22nd Street. We're hoping to close very soon."

City officials say they've done nothing wrong, adding that they are not selling a building or equipment.

"The asset we are selling is the analog," which will be replaced by a digital station, said Foster.

Foster was unaware of FCC rules that require public notice, but he said the city would work to ensure it is in compliance with federal laws.

"I need to confirm that what she (Edwards) says is correct and move from there," he said.

If the council agrees to sell the station to Prime Time Partners on Monday, the sale is still subject to FCC approval. That process could take 90 days.

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8874.

. fast facts

Timeline

Nov. 1, 1989: City of St. Petersburg begins televising meetings on Paragon Cable.

September 1994: City buys Channel 35 from Channel America for $140,000.

August 1995: City begins simulcasting meetings and other programs.

December 2007: FCC requires full power broadcast stations to convert to digital transmission.

December 2007: Bright House moves government and education channels to digital tier, which moves WSPF-Ch. 35 from 15 to 615.

February 2010:City conducts unscientific poll of station viewers. Only six respond. City applies to FCC for a construction permit to convert WSPF-Ch. 35 to a digital station.

December 2010: FCC approves the city's request. Construction permit is good for three years.

July 14, 2011: City Council hires Hadden & Associates Inc. as a broker to sell the license and construction permit for Channel 35.

Nov. 3: Prime Time Partners offers to buy the station for $500,000.

Nov. 22: Deadline for the city to respond to Prime Time Partners' offer.

Offer for TV channel is too quick, too cheap 11/19/11 [Last modified: Sunday, November 20, 2011 1:30pm]
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