The great public TV swap: A funding solution or a scam?

Does public TV have to be protected against itself? Are its station managers so strapped for money they'll do almost anything legal to raise funds -- even giving away, in effect, the station itself? These questions lie behind a controversy now raging within the world of public TV -- an issue that strikes deep into the heart of public policy.

Suppose you're the manager of a public TV station. Perennial fund raising constantly steals time and effort you wish you could devote to more creative challenges.

Then along comes the chance to take a giant step toward ``solving'' this problem in one fell swoop -- one transaction that would yield millions of dollars a year from then on. You might find this pretty hard to resist, even if it meant giving up something of almost incalculable value.

Sound like a fantasy? Well, the Tampa, Fla., public TV station (WEDU) now has what it feels is just such a chance. But there's a hitch, and that's what has aroused all the concern: WEDU would have to swap the VHF channel it now broadcasts on for a typically less desirable UHF. To compensate, the commercial station (WTOG) would pay WEDU some $50 million in cash (plus some services).

At the moment, the decision for allowing this swap lies with the FCC. Contracts for the Tampa deal have been submitted for FCC approval, and concerned parties were given a chance to state their views to the FCC during a comment period.

And comment they did. The threat of opening the door for this kind of deal has sent tremors throughout public broadcasting and galvanized an opposition typified by such unlikely allies as that gadfly of commercial TV, Action for Children's Television (ACT), and that heavyweight of the commercial airwaves, Taft Broadcasting. People like veteran TV producer-journalist and sage Fred W. Friendly have joined the resistance. In remarks made to the 1985 Public Television Annual Meeting, Friendly said ``Don 't go sucker for the Tampa surrender. It's not a swap, it's a scam.''

What makes it a surrender, many critics feel, is that a UHF channel -- which public stations would end up with in swaps like this -- is more expensive to maintain, more vulnerable to signal interference from hills and other obstructions, and -- most important -- usually reaches a much smaller audience.

Public stations with VHF signals now have the potential for reaching large segments of their broadcast area. Their signals are easy to tune in and come in quite clearly. A UHF signal, on the other hand, forfeits much of this viewership -- and thus much of the future hopes of public broadcasting. Big public-TV funders would be much harder to attract with such a diminished audience, and friends of public TV see the whole hard-won structure of noncommercial TV washing away in the face of the temptation to swap.

But what a temptation! In some of the largest markets the price might be upward of $200 million. If invested, such a sum would pay a lot of bills -- yielding millions each year from then on. The fear that some financially strapped public public TV operators would find such a deal absolutely irresistible has already proven a realistic one: Several public stations have come out in favor of allowing this kind of swap (although their comments before the FCC are outnumbered by opposing ones).

Why, then, are some of the big commercial broadcasters so worried about this public TV issue? John D. Chapman, a Taft Broadcasting spokesman, makes no bones about his own company's reasons. Since Taft owns a station in Tampa, ``We have a selfish interest,'' he concedes, in preventing a competitor from gaining a potent VHF channel that is currently reserved for noncommercial broadcasting.

WEDU itself argues that its own case is special. The difference is geography, according to Mark Damen, president and chief executive officer. By phone from Tampa, he told me that ``the separate considerations which apply to Tampa Bay and the rest of central Florida are probably quite unique in that this terrain is very, very flat. There are no mountains, there are no hills, there are no obstacles to propagation of a television signal.''

This means, he says, that UHF signals would work very well in the Tampa area, and he cited three engineering studies which indicate that ``neither the coverage area of WEDU nor the quality of the WEDU signal would be adversely influenced or affected by this exchange.''

Then why -- if WEDU's present signal is no better than the one they'd be getting in the swap -- is the commercial station willing to pay so much for it? Mr. Damen can only guess it's because of a bias he feels advertisers have against UHF channels. After this swap, WTOG could charge more for commercials.

Topograghy so congenial to UHF signals, however, ``admittedly would not be true of the great majority of broadcasting stations in the United States,'' Mr. Damen says. So it's the precedent that's the real danger, even if the Tampa deal argues for its own special justification.

If the management of most other public stations won't protect its channels from such a lure, ``We'll do it for them,'' many friends of public broadcast are saying in effect. They could do so by calling into play some of the serious legal and public policy points involved. There's the question, for instance, of who really owns a public station and its physical plant. Is it the station management's to give away in the first place?

But the best solution, according to anti-swappers, would be removing the lure entirely -- through an FCC ban of such swaps.

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