Auction Talk Draws TV Spectrum Speculators

The likelihood of federal spectrum auctions is having a two-pronged effect: leading some buyers to look for low-priced stations to buy in the hopes of cashing out from the auction proceeds; and causing some struggling smaller-market and public stations that could use money now to put themselves on the block.

Cheap beachfront real estate. That’s how NRJ TV, a fledgling media group, views cellar-dwelling TV stations in major markets.

Betting on an eventual auction of broadcast spectrum by the federal government, NRJ is buying such TV stations on the cheap in the hope of one day sharing in the proceeds of that auction, according to industry sources following such speculation.

NRJ last month bought two former Multicultural Television stations — KCNS San Francisco and WFMP Boston — for $15 million and $5 million, respectively. And the company has its eye on as many as a dozen additional stations, according to the sources. WSAH Bridgeport, Conn., in the New York market, may be next on the list. Like KCNS and WFMP, WSAH is one of five Multicultural stations that were placed in a trust after owner Arthur Liu defaulted on loans.

NRJ also was among the bidders for KWHY, the Los Angeles station NBCU sold in January to the Hispanic-owned Meruelo Group for $40 million.

Ted Bartley, managing partner of NRJ, doesn’t dismiss the idea of spectrum investing, but he does downplay it. “We are buying TV stations — we think at historical lows in some cases,” he said. “We don’t know what the outcome will be. We’re trying to buy at a price to operate them efficiently and make money as broadcasters.

“I think all broadcasters hope for good things [on spectrum], but there’s no certainty,” he says. “We are certainly not speculating on that as the only way to make money.”


Along with Bartley, NRJ’s principals include Larry Patrick of Patrick Communications and Dan Sullivan and Bert Ellis of Titan Broadcast Management. Titan focuses on turning around bankrupt or struggling stations. It will manage the Multicultural stations under contract with NRJ.

NRJ isn’t alone in seeking to acquire stations in major markets at least in part for the value of the spectrum “They’re not the only ones; there are some other stations already under letters of intent,” said a broker working on some of those deals.

Among those stations is WZMY, the MNT affiliate in Boston owned by ShootingStar Broadcasting. Diane Sutter, president-CEO of ShootingStar, declined to comment other than to say, “My equity partners and I are, by definition, always sellers at the right price.”

The broker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that would-be buyers are particularly interested in the Top 25 markets and some smaller outliers. Those are the markets where wireless broadband use and demand is high and where there are the largest numbers of marginal stations.

“These are stations that aren’t going to win Emmys, but they’ve got some real estate,” the broker said. “If this kills five to seven stations in New York or Los Angeles, it’s not going to kill any good things.”

Some broadcasters and financial experts find the spectrum play interesting, but aren’t convinced it will produce a big payoff.

“It’s a highly speculative investment at this point,” says Randy Bongarten, principal of group owner Bonten Media. “I think there are a lot of people interested in television, but the people I talk to don’t talk about buying up spectrum.”

For Barry Lucas, of Gabelli & Co., several conditions would have to be met for spectrum speculation to work: “You’d have to really buy it cheap, number one,” he says. “Number two, you’d have to have a high degree of confidence that [an auction] is the direction the FCC is going to take. And number three, you’ve got to be reasonably confident that Congress is going to allow you to keep some important percentage of the proceeds.”

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, issued in March 2010, proposes recapturing 120 MHz of the 300 MHz of broadcast spectrum so that it can be reallocated to wireless broadband, a service the FCC believes is more critical to the economic health of the country.

Some of that spectrum would come through repacking the broadcast band, modifying the coverage areas and channel assignments of stations to make sure they are using the spectrum as efficiently as possible.

But the bulk of spectrum would come through so-called incentive auctions, whereby broadcast licensees would be induced to give up all or some of of their spectrum in exchange for a hefty cut of the proceeds from the eventual auction of the spectrum to wireless broadband providers.

The FCC is already empowered to repack stations, even though that is not without controversy. Implementing spectrum auctions will require an act of Congress.

Although Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), last week likened the auction idea to holding a gun to the industry’s head, the broker said there appears to be bipartisan support for auctions.

“Congress wants this really, really badly,” the broker said. “If you’re a Tea Party person, it’s a way to reduce the deficit. If you’re a spender, this is a way to get money for your programs.”

A congressional bill not only would enable an auction, it likely would set targets for what percentage of auction proceeds broadcasters would receive for voluntarily returning their spectrum.

Percentages as low as 20 and as high as 35 have been floated for what broadcasters would receive.

Religious broadcasters, independents, networks such as Ion, and public stations all have “a target on their backs” for potential buyers, the broker said.

Ion Media Networks owns stations in all but three of the Top 25 DMAs. In addition, it owns two stations in Boston and Washington. Publicly, Ion is focusing on plans to launch mobile DTV in the top 10 U.S. television markets in the first quarter. Brandon Burgess, Ion’s CEO, was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment.

Trinity Broadcasting and Daystar Television Network, with stations in many of the top markets, also may be among those targeted by speculators.

Trinity, for instance, owns stations in 13 of the Top 25 DMAs. Daystar owns stations in eight of the Top 25. Neither Trinity nor Daystar responded to queries seeking comment.

The noncommercial stations may also be in play. Because they receive federal subsidies, public stations typically have remained outside the commercial fray. That may be changing.

“The PBS defunding movement is pushing some second- or third-tier public stations to say we’re out of here,” the broker said. “Some public stations have gone so far as to list [with brokers].”

Among the markets where public stations have put up a for-sale sign or are exploring their options: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Tampa and Orlando.

The fundamental question framing the debate: How much is the spectrum worth? Projections vary widely.

A CTIA-CEA white paper issued last week states the spectrum could fetch between $36 billion and $48 billion at auction. The $36 billion figure values the spectrum at $0.978 per MHz per POP. A 2008 auction of one-time broadcast spectrum valued it at an average of $1.28 per MHz per POP.

AT&T has announced it will purchase $1.925 billion of Qualcomm spectrum. That works to an average of about $0.87 MHz per POP. The deal is expected to close in the second half of this year.

President Obama in his State of the Union address this year suggested an auction could bring in $27 billion.

NRJ figures the price could be substantially higher.

“They’re talking about a spectrum auction that could generate well north of $60 billion,” said a source familiar with that company’s thinking. “Maybe broadcasters would get $15 billion to $20 billion of that.”

Uncertainty not only about an auction, but also about how the spectrum would be valued prompts caution among some in the financial community.

“No one has said definitively what it’s worth and that there’s a market for it,” said Damian Riordan, principal of Peloton Media Advisors, a boutique media and entertainment M&A advisory firm.

“So while people have gone out of their way to try and put some valuation methodologies and metrics around spectrum, the fact remains that this process could take a long time to evolve.”

Comments (2)

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Kathryn Miller says:

February 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm

just what business hasn’t been screwed so far by the Obama administration? Just what campaign promise — today’s example is the “defense of marriage act” that Obama was all for, until he decided it was unconstitutional today — has be followed through on? That you will be able to keep your health plan after his goes into effect? Buying stations because you think you can flip the spectrum to this administration is a fool’s play.

Ben Gao says:

February 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I anticipate the NAB fighting for TV NOT to budge on spectrum. Broadband hogs already have a boatload of spectrum that they’re NOT using, so why let them ‘steal’ “Free TV”?

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