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Philly's WYBE brushes off WHYY, transfers broadcast license to Bethlehem's PBS39

Bob Fernandez, Staff Writer

Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 2:39 PM

The World channel, which formerly was carried by WHYY, is now distributed by WLVT.

Philadelphia’s WYBE — which unloaded its wireless spectrum for $131 million in a government auction last year — has transferred its broadcast license to an Allentown-area public media outlet.

The transfer means that the Lehigh Valley Public Telecommunications Corp. could double its television channels to eight over time and broaden its offering of international channels such as the World and France 24, the group’s top executive, Tim Fallon, said this week.

The Lehigh Valley-WYBE deal also presents a stronger competitor for eyeballs and fund-raising dollars to Philadelphia’s WHYY, the region’s public media powerhouse, which operates three television channels, a radio station, and digital platforms.

Public media stations such as WYBE faced going dark with no place on the TV dial after selling their spectrum in 2017, or having to lease frequency capacity from other television broadcasters to stay on air. Government officials called the broadcast licenses such as the one at WYBE “zombies.” The organizations behind the licenses had the rights to televise channels but no air waves to do so.

“It didn’t make sense for a [noncommercial] license to disappear,” Fallon said of WYBE. “This is about keeping public media alive in the Philadelphia market.”

Lehigh Valley also sold its frequencies in the same Federal Communications Commission auction. But while WYBE decided to cease to exist as a public television operator, Lehigh Valley negotiated a channel-sharing deal with an Allentown-area religious broadcaster to piggyback on its airwaves and stay on air.

Because of the switch from analog to digital technology, one over-the-air frequency can broadcast multiple streams of content or channels.

Lehigh Valley’s television signals under this channel-sharing deal reach as far as South Philadelphia, the Poconos, and Harrisburg. Because of their on-air status, Comcast Xfinity, Verizon Fios, DirecTV, Dish, Service Electric, RCN, and other pay-TV operators also distribute the channels under federal “must-carry” rules — giving the noncommercial channels a potentially huge audience through parts of Pennsylvania.

As over-the-air television technology improves with new antennas, television broadcasters are expected to cram more content streams, or channels, into their frequencies. This opens the prospect that Lehigh Valley eventually could offer up to eight channels with the broadcast licenses for itself and WYBE.

There is an immediate benefit for TV viewers as part of the WYBE transfer. In January, Lehigh Valley added to its offerings the World, a PBS news, documentary, science, and nature channel that WHYY dropped in 2017 for a PBS Kids. This is the fifth channel offered to viewers by Lehigh Valley.

In addition to Lehigh Valley’s flagship channel PBS39 (also known as WLVT) and World, the broadcaster airs and distributes PBS Create, MHz Worldview, and the BBC-like France 24.

WHYY talked with WYBE about transferring its license to it. But no deal was reached.

“We did have some conversations with the folks at WYBE,” Art Ellis, the spokesman for WHYY, said this week. “But they chose to go with the Lehigh Valley.”

WHYY reported total grants and contributions of $24.8 million for the tax year ending June 30, 2016, according to the latest IRS documents available online. Lehigh Valley raised $3.6 million over the same period.

WYBE is winding down its operations in Philadelphia and some of its equipment has been donated to city schools, the station’s spokesman, Tom Gailey, said this week.

With the transfer of the broadcast license, WYBE’s parent organization, Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, is re-creating itself as a foundation for “public-media funding.”

Gailey said the organization is adopting bylaws, a strategic plan, a framework for grant-making, and a budget. He said the first grants will be awarded in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2019. By federal tax law, the foundation has to award 5 percent of its assets a year.

Bob Fernandez, Staff Writer

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