Orange County

UNC-TV network gets OK to fast-track work on channel-share contracts

UNC-TV and UNC system President Margaret Spellings have permission from the Board of Governors to fast-track channel-sharing deals with other broadcasters that could put more money in the coffers of the state’s public-television network.

Board members on Friday signed off on a “delegation of authority” to Spellings that lets her sign off on the contracts network General Manager Brian Sickora hopes to negotiate with one or more broadcasters.

Sickora said work on any deal has to move fast because of an impending Federal Communications Commission deadline.

“Time is of the essence in the marketplace right now,” he told a board committee earlier in the week.

The move stems from the FCC’s moves in the past year or so to “buy back” the rights to portions of the radio spectrum from licensed television broadcasters, to free up bandwidth for use by other wireless companies.

UNC-TV and other license holders had to decide last year whether they’d put their rights up for auction. Concluding the UNC network is too valuable for the state to let go of, system leaders decided last year not to participate in the auction.

But at the same time, they noted that the auction process could open other business possibilities for the network, including a channel-sharing deal with a broadcaster that wants to stay on the air despite having surrendered its own spectrum rights.

UNC-TV’s statewide network has 12 stations, each controlling 6 megahertz of radio bandwidth. Given advancing technology, official reckon they have wiggle room to share up to 40 percent of that allocation.

Before signing, though, they’d negotiate a deal spelling out the technical details of how a partner would add its signal to the channel, and they’d insist that the partner bear the full cost of any necessary hardware and software.

Even if Spellings OKs a deal, the FCC would retain the final say. It would have to give UNC-TV’s channel-sharing partner a new broadcast license.

The federal agency is giving process a hurry-up. It expects to start paying broadcasters in July for any spectrum rights they’re surrendering, and it’s asking those that want to stay on the air to have a channel-sharing agreement in place by November, UNC-TV officials said in their report to the board.

UNC-TV’s financial motives for considering a deal are obvious. Some 47 percent of its roughly $27 million budget comes from the federal or state governments. And at least on the federal level, the Trump administration has signaled that it wants to zero out subsidies for public broadcasting.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg