UGA To Buy Local TV Station

My alma mater is buying a local CBS affiliate, WNEG-TV (Toccoa, GA), which will become part of The Center for Advanced Media operated by The Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The University of Georgia Research Foundation is buying the local station, channel 32, from its current owner, Media General, Inc., pending FCC approval, of course. Reported sales price: $1.44 million. Studio operations for the Northeast Georgia station will be moved from Toccoa to Athens; UGA-oriented programming is planned for fall 2009.

Reportedly, this makes UGA “one of a handful” of universities that hold commercial television licenses. My Google-foo isn’t good today, as I’ve not been able to identify any others yet.

WNEG has been an unappreciated asset for about 20 years. Media General (Hollywood, VA) became the station owner in 2000, when it acquired the assets of South Carolina-based Spartan Communications. In turn, after getting an exemption to the duopoly rule, Spartan acquired WNEG in 1997 and operated it as a satellite of WSPA. Then local owner Stephens County Broadcasting Company had been trying to sell the property since at least 1990, claiming competition from Turner TNT Cable Network had made the station unprofitable. The FCC designates the station as part of the Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson-Asheville Designated Market Area (“DMA”); it was launched in 1984.

According to the proposal, the Center will “create, aggregate, and distribute UGA content and that of its host city, Athens, over multiple media platforms.” This seems to fulfill a vision shared by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation, at the 20th anniversary of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. According to Eric Alterman, The Nation, at that luncheon Gregorian called for universities to buy newspapers, in part to maintain journalism’s role as an “intermediary and an interpreter between society and knowledge,” a proposed response to the industry’s broken business model.

Worth reading for context: Jay Rosen’s column responding to the 2005 announcement that journalism programs at Columbia University; Harvard University; Northwestern University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Southern California were embarking on a “three-year, $6 million effort to try to elevate the standing of journalism in academia and find ways to prepare journalists better.”

WNEG is one of five TV stations that Media General is selling to reduce corporate debt. In May, the company sold WTVQ in Lexington, KY to Morris Network Inc. The company has agreed to sell two stations to Hoak Media Corp.: WMBB, an ABC affiliate in Panama City, FL, and KALB/NALB, an NBC/CBS affiliate in Alexandria, LA. They are also selling fifth station, WCWJ, located in Jacksonville, FL.

See FCC rules for broadcast TV stations as well as a procedural manual (47 CFR 73.4210), The Public and Broadcasting. From the section, Basic Law and Policy:

The FCC and Freedom of Speech. The First Amendment, as well as Section 326 of the Communications Act, prohibits the Commission from censoring broadcast material and from interfering with freedom of expression in broadcasting. The Constitution’s protection of free speech includes that of programming that may be objectionable to many viewer or listeners. Thus, the FCC cannot prevent the broadcast of any particular point of view. In this regard, the Commission has observed that “the public interest is best served by permitting free expression of views.” However, the right to broadcast material is not absolute. There are some restrictions on the material that a licensee can broadcast. We discuss these restrictions below.

Licensee Discretion. Because the Commission cannot dictate to licensees what programming they may air, each individual radio and TV station licensee generally has discretion to select what its station broadcasts and to otherwise determine how it can best serve its community of license. Licensees are responsible for selecting their entertainment programming, as well as programs concerning local issues, news, public affairs, religion, sports events, and other subjects. As discussed at page 29 of this Manual, broadcast licensees must periodically make available detailed information about the programming that they air to meet the needs and problems of their communities, which can be found in each station public file. They also decide how their programs will be structured and whether to edit or reschedule material for broadcasting. In light of the First Amendment and Section 326 of the Communications Act, we do not substitute our judgment for that of the licensee, nor do we advise stations on artistic standards, format, grammar, or the quality of their programming. Licensees also have broad discretion regarding commercials, with the exception of those for political candidates during an election and the limitations on advertisements aired during children’s programming (we discuss these respective requirements at pages 13-14, and 17 of this Manual).

Criticism, Ridicule, and Humor Concerning Individuals, Groups, and Institutions. The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech similarly protects programming that stereotypes or may otherwise offend people with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender, or other characteristics. It also protects broadcasts that criticize or ridicule established customs and institutions, including the government and its officials. The Commission recognizes that, under our Constitution, people must be free to say things that the majority may abhor, not only what most people may find tolerable or congenial. However, if you are offended by a station’s programming, we urge you to make your concerns known to the station licensee, in writing.

Programming Access. In light of their discretion to formulate their programming, station licensees are not required to broadcast everything that is offered or otherwise suggested to them. Except as required by the Communications Act, including the use of stations by candidates for public office (discussed at pages 13-14 of this Manual), licensees have no obligation to allow any particular person or group to participate in a broadcast or to present that person or group’s remarks.

You also might be interested in reviewing FCC Consumer Facts: Complaints About Broadcast Journalism.

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