PUBLIC television could find itself on the wrong side of a bad bargain if the Federal Communications Commission approves a proposed channel swap in Tampa, Fla. Here's how it would work: Public TV station WEDU would trade its VHF channel (3) to Hubbard Broadcasting Inc. for the company's UHF channel 44 (WTOG) and some $50 million in cash and other considerations.
Like most public television outlets in the United States, WEDU scrabbles for funding from a variety of sources, including corporate and individual donations as well as state and federal grants. Substantial cuts in federal assistance for public broadcasting in recent years have forced stations across the nation to try new revenue-raising methods.
VHF (very-high-frequency) spots on the broadcast spectrum are prized because they are stronger and there are fewer of them -- 13 as compared with 56 UHF (ultra-high-frequency) channels. In 35 of the 50 major US television ``markets,'' public television stations have VHF channels.
Some of those, broadcasting experts say, could bring more than $200 million in swaps. An ``endowment'' of even $100 million could provide a station with several million a year to produce high-quality programs. The prospect of more shows like ``Masterpiece Theatre'' being shared nationwide via the Public Broadcasting System is tempting.
So why would swaps like the one proposed in Tampa be bad for public TV? Basically, for the very reason that commercial broadcasters are ready to lay out so much cash for VHF channels: The audiences for the public television stations would almost invariably shrink, since UHF signals are weaker than VHF and more susceptible to interference.
To the argument that the spread of cable television service tends to cancel those disadvantages, opponents of such swaps reply that less than half the ``television homes'' in the US have cable service, that people should not have to pay for public television, and that the rule requiring cable systems to carry public television signals is under attack in the courts and at the FCC.
Other questions that arise about swap-sales of public TV channels:
Would the money have to be shared with other PBS outlets?
What rights would those who have donated money, land, physical plant, and other types of aid have either to share in or veto such a deal?
Can the FCC permit a swap without opening the process to other possible bidders for the VHF channel?
Underlying such questions is the fact that those who run public television stations are custodians of a vital public resource and must answer to the public -- not just the FCC -- for their management of them.
In its present deregulating mood, the FCC might well be inclined to issue a precedent-setting ruling in favor of the Tampa swap. But it would be doing so against a heavy tide of dissent from both public and private interests, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Association of Public Television Stations, eight of the largest commercial radio-TV corporations in the US, the National Education Association, and Action for Children's Television. A number of state and local public broadcasting organizations have also submitted statements in opposition to the swap.
In comments submitted to the FCC, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting pointed out that the original allocation of VHF channels to public television was ``deliberate'' and was done ``despite heavy opposition.'' CPB and others are also protesting the present FCC's decision to bypass, in the Tampa case, ``comparative hearings'' in which third parties could compete for the channels being swapped.
The CPB concludes that ``regardless of the amount of money or equipment it receives'' in a VHF-UHF swap, a public TV station ``will have traded away an incomparable resource -- one that is inherently better able to provide service than the channel it would receive in exchange.''
Even if the FCC doesn't turn thumbs down on the Tampa swap -- and it should -- managers of public TV stations with VHF channels should resist the lure of a largely short-term gain and hold on to their prized frequencies.