The future of the WUSF TV station is up in the air after the USF Board of Trustees (BOT) special meeting on Tuesday.
After about an hour of deliberation, the BOT approved USF’s participation in this year’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) incentive broadcast spectrum auction, which could mean the end of WUSF, the university owned television station.
The FCC auction will be an opportunity for TV stations across the nation to sell or trade their broadcasting rights. Any eligible company that applies and makes an up-front payment can enter the auction, according to the FCC website. The auction is part of an effort to free up space on the electromagnetic spectrum that wireless mobile devices need more than ever with the increase in mobile device usage.
Provost Ralph Wilcox gave a presentation at the meeting answering two questions the BOT had asked prior to the special meeting: do other top tier research universities in the U.S. own TV stations and does WUSF’s programming align with USF priorities?
Wilcox, citing information he’d collected concerning member schools of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an association of the top 62 research universities in the U.S. and Canada, said he found only a small percentage of these members owned television stations.
Of the 62 member schools in the AAU, only 10 presently own television stations, nine of which are Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations.
USF’s mission is to “deliver competitive undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, to generate knowledge, foster intellectual development and ensure student success in a global environment,” according to the university website.
In answer to how WUSF was on par with USF’s mission, Wilcox talked about WUSF’s programming.
He divided his discussion of WUSF’s programming into two sections. He spoke on education in cooperation with the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. WUSF offers a limited number of internships to students from the school, and an advanced television production class is taught in conjunction with the facility.
The second topic was the actual programming, which Wilcox put into five groups: instruction and “how to,” travel, new and current affairs, drama, and children’s programming.
When WUSF was launched back in September of 1963, the purpose was to provide classes via TV. However, Wilcox said at the meeting, this idea is outdated.
“No longer do we have the need for … distribution of instructional content via television. That is not how millennials are receiving important digital content today,” Wilcox said.
Given this information, many members of the BOT concluded WUSF’s current operations did not fit with USF’s mission.
If WUSF were taken off the air, the capital assets and money from the sale of WUSF would still be USF’s. These assets include the studios, equipment and buildings themselves, which could be outfitted to meet student needs.
In his presentation, Wilcox said USF Online Education and USF branding and marketing could also get a boost.
Part of the problem has been that WUSF has been losing money over the past few years. An article in the Tampa Bay Tribune stated that WUSF reported a $279,659 loss for fiscal year 2015. Previous WUSF financial reports show a loss of $182,564 for 2014 and $224,921 for 2013.
The financial reports also showed that WUSF has taken out loans from the USF Foundation. The Tampa Tribune reported the station owes $715,696 to the Foundation.
WUSF TV broadcasts to the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota area and is a full power station. The FCC estimate for high-end compensation per broadcaster is a maximum of $71 million and a median of $60 million. Opening bids for the auction will be announced soon.
Current options for entering the auction include going off the air completely, moving from a high quality UHF channel to a VHF channel, pre- or post-auction channel sharing, or choosing not to sell and repacking WUSF.
Going completely off the air would yield the biggest payout for USF, giving them 100 percent of the sale. The least profitable option is not selling, which may even come with out-of-pocket costs for USF, according to Tim Pecaro, principal and founder of Bond & Pecaro, a consulting company.
The BOT discussed changing WUSF programming in order to fit the university mission, something of which Trustee Nancy Watkins was skeptical.
“This process has been going on for three years to determine the future viability of WUSF from the non-academic side,” Watkins said. “This is not a new thing that now all the sudden we’re going to … have a fair to invite ideas for how best to use WUSF.
“Those opportunities have been made. They are not exhausted, and we will continue to look at them but it’s not the time to start with everybody coming up with a new idea that we’re going to have to do impact studies on.”
Trustee Scott Hopes said President Judy Genshaft often talks about being innovative, to which Watkins replied that the chance to innovate has been going on for years.
“We are still going to be delivering and pushing out content at this university that is of high academic value … (but) do we do it where people have rabbit ears on their TVs,” Watkins said.
Watkins will represent the BOT at the auction. Whether or not WUSF TV is sold will not affect WUSF’s radio station.