Vermont PBS Gets 'Transformational' $56 Million For Sale Of FCC License

Feb 17, 2017

Officials at Vermont PBS announced Friday that the station sold one of its four FCC broadcasting licenses for $56 million in a federal auction.

Vermont PBS has an annual budget of about $6 million, and CEO Holly Groschner acknowledged that this $56 million license sale is huge for the organization.

But she also said this new injection of cash is not going to be used to pay for business as usual at the public television station.

“This is transformational money, but it's one-time money, and it is money that will take us into the 21st century,” she said.

Groschner didn't have many details to share, but she said changes will likely include an expanded online presence and more local content. She added that Vermont PBS' engineering department has a plan that will allow the station to continue broadcasting throughout its existing coverage area, even with just three FCC licenses.

The sale is part of an effort launched by Congress to redistribute some of the frequencies regulated by the Federal Communications Commission in order to expand wireless broadband.

Here's how it worked:

“The FCC held an auction that has not even yet concluded that has awarded broadcasters both commercial and public with the bids that they would accept for their spectrum, and turned around and sold that spectrum into the broadband marketplace,” Groschner said.

Basically, the FCC acted as an intermediary, and Vermont PBS sold the rights to use certain FCC-regulated frequencies.

In theory, the buyer is a company like AT&T, Verizon or another wireless data provider, and that company will use the new wireless license to expand wireless broadband. But just like Vermont PBS' plans for what to do with the cash, it's not clear who will benefit from the sold FCC license.

“We don't yet know who will in fact acquire the spectrum we've sold,” she said, “or where it will be deployed.”

The hefty winning bid might be a hint. Groschner said most of these license auctions are ending up in the ballpark of $12 million. Vermont PBS got almost five times that.

“Our spectrum had particular value because of our proximity to the metropolitan areas surrounding Boston,” Groschner said.

As Groschner announced a financial injection unheard of in Vermont media in recent years, she pushed back against the idea that lawmakers should see this as an opportunity to cut funding to Vermont PBS.

“We feel certain that the system in the United States of public broadcasting is an interdependent web for creation of fantastic content, and that system as it stands today is a magnificent institution that should not be challenged,” she said.

And the same goes for the often-referenced "viewers like you" who support Vermont PBS.

Groschner says people who have donated some of their limited funds in the past shouldn't see this news as a reason to disengage.

“We say, 'Join us,'” Groschner said, addressing Vermont PBS supporters. “What matters to you, matters to us. You have an investment — those viewers have an investment in Vermont PBS, and we want to leverage that investment and build an environment that they'll be proud of.”

Groschner said the station is planning some new hires to manage the incoming funds, and there are also plans in the works to solicit public input on how Vermont PBS can better serve its audience.

WCAX President Peter Martin said Friday that the station only has one FCC license, which it is not auctioning off. The station will have to make some technical changes as a result of the re-shuffling of FCC-regulated frequencies.

MyNBC5, also known as WPTZ, did not respond to a request for comment Friday about whether that station will be affected in any way by the national auction process, which was open to all public and private television broadcasters.

Disclosure: Taylor Dobbs is occasionally a paid guest on Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS.