Are auctions bad bidness?

PBS stations say making noncommercial broadcasters bid for license misreads statute

Public broadcasters were only partially happy with the FCC's decision last week to use a point system to choose among parties competing for educational broadcast licenses.

It's not the new system-which they largely devised-that upsets the public broadcasting community. It's that the FCC plans to use auctions to decide between parties vying for the same slot. Public broadcasters say it is unfair to require non-commercial broadcasters, which have few resources, to bid against commercial broadcasters.

"In general, we were very disappointed that the commission chose to subject noncommercial broadcasters to auctions in certain contexts," said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of nonprofit law firm Media Access Project. MAP represented the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in the proceeding, which has been under way since 1992.

"While we are pleased with the commission's proposed process to use a point system for assigning noncommercial educational spectrum, we think the commission has misinterpreted the language and intent of the statute regarding auctions. We believe that this decision will have a far-reaching negative impact on public television translators and, ultimately, service to the American people," said Lonna Thompson, director of legal affairs at the Association of America's Public Television Stations.

Other groups, such as National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, chose not to comment because, at deadline, the FCC had not issued an official order.

FCC Commissioners Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Gloria Tristani agree with the public broadcasters, both dissenting in part from the overall decision. Both said their interpretation of the law would preclude the FCC from including noncommercial broadcasters in any auctions.

"We believe that Congress' mandate is clear: The Commission lacks authority to employ auctions to issue licenses to such stations, regardless of whether they operate on a reserved or on a commercial frequency," the commissioners wrote in their dissent.

Tristani also said that more points should be given to stations "that promised to provide a minimum level of locally originated programming."

The point system the commission is proposing would give three points to local entities, two points to those without other broadcast stations or that service local schools, and one or two points to stations with superior technical features. In a tie, a license would be awarded to the licensee with the fewest existing stations or the fewest pending applications. If that doesn't break the tie, the stations would be required to share the license, another point public broadcasters oppose.

Some 800 AM, FM and TV license applications have been on hold while the FCC figured out how to assign licenses among them.