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Public TV stations find a quick fix to budget woes

"Inside OC with Rick Reiff" is one of the shows produced by KOCE, which re-branded itself as PBS SoCal when it became the primary source of PBS programming for much of Southern California.

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Funding for public television has been under attack in Washington, but a handful of stations are now sorting through stacks of money — tens of millions of dollars, in fact.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced the results of a massive auction. Up for sale were all or part of the broadcast frequencies used by commercial and non-commercial TV stations.

The evolution in digital technology means the stations had more bandwidth than they needed. And phone companies are desperate to buy it up. Many stations around the country — about 175 — have just auctioned some of their surplus bandwidth. L.A. Times reporter Stephen Battaglio says:

This was meant to raise money for the government. What happens is, the TV stations, which had licenses to use the public airwaves, were able to sell some or part of that frequency that they use back to the government. And the government then sold it to wireless carriers. So about $9 billion was expected to go into the treasury to help reduce the federal deficit.

Non-commercial stations in Southern California benefitted greatly. KCET and KLCS — the latter is owned by the L.A. Unified School District — will each net about $62 million. KVCR — owned by the San Bernardino Community College District — will reportedly net a whopping $157 million.  

KOCE (PBS SoCal), which is based in Los Angeles and Orange County, is the only place to find most PBS programming in Southern California. (L.A.-based KCET left PBS back in 2010.) 

KOCE made $49 million from the spectrum sale, which is actually less than it was expecting. Still, station president and CEO Andrew Russell has big plans for those funds: 

We're going to build out our services. One thing that it's enabled us to do right away is that we launched a new kids channel. We saw the auction coming to a good close and we launched that in January. That's a great example of where we want to go. We'll have strong, over-the-air broadcast channels, but we'll also complement that with digital services and streaming services. 

Although the proceeds from the sale give KOCE a big boost, Russell stressed the importance of continuing government aid at a time when Congress is considering to cut off funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting:

The percent of our budget [from federal funds] is about 11-to-15 percent. The total amount of funding is anywhere between $2.5 to $3 million a year. It's very important support and it's also very clear that there is no viable substitute for federal funding. It's very important that funding is there and it continues. Public support will be important to making that happen.

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