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Channel 56 in Greensburg bites dust to make room for broadband

Jacob Tierney
| Friday, July 21, 2017, 1:31 a.m.
Federal Communications Commission building in Washington, D.C.
Federal Communications Commission building in Washington, D.C.

After the final credits of “Miami Vice” ran just before midnight, WEMW — channel 56 in Greensburg — went off the air for good Thursday.

It's one of seven Western Pennsylvania television stations that will shut down over the next year after being bought out in 2016 in an auction organized by the Federal Communications Commission.

Five of the stations, including WEMW, are owned by Virginia-based OTA Broadcasting, which received a combined $74 million in the auction. The OTA-owned stations carried the Cozi, Movies! and RetroTV networks, all of which broadcast classic shows and films.

Only over-the-air broadcast viewers will be impacted. Cable and satellite customers will not be affected by the shakeup.

The FCC auction has been in the works since getting congressional approval in 2012. The FCC offered broadcasters a combined $10.05 billion to give up their stations, then auctioned the bandwidth off to bidders, mostly wireless broadband providers such as AT&T and T-Mobile.

These providers paid a combined $19.8 billion. TV stations will be paid the amounts they already agreed on, with most of the surplus going into the U.S. Treasury Department.

“We had to buy enough stations to make room in the band,” FCC spokesman Charles Meisch said.

Radio waves carry everything from radio to television to the broadband internet used by cellphones, but there's only so many frequencies available. Very low frequencies can carry signals a long way but can only handle a tiny amount of data. The highest frequencies can carry a lot of data but not very far. There's a sweet spot, a range called ultra-high frequencies, that can carry a lot of data a long way. It is mostly used by television stations.

The FCC has long wanted to free up some frequencies in that range so broadband internet providers could offer stronger signals in more places, Meisch said.

Not all stations in the auction will disappear. WQED, Pittsburgh's PBS affiliate, accepted $9.9 million to move to a new, lower-frequency channel.

WQED celebrated the results of the auction, which came at an ideal time to help the financially struggling station.

“It's a big step for us, because the $9.9 million will allow us to clean up our balance sheet. It will allow us to pay off some very longstanding debt,” station spokesman George Hazimanolis said.

Even the stations that are going off the air might continue in some form. Most stations bought in the auction, including all in Western Pennsylvania, have a channel-sharing agreement which means they might carry on by sharing space with another network.

WEMW is an affiliate of Pittsburgh's WEPA. There are 11 stations in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia under the WEPA umbrella, all owned by OTA Broadcasting and carrying the same programming. Five of them will be shut down, including WEPA. The rest will continue to run as normal, according to station manager Matthew Davis.

“Day to day, I'll be doing what I'm doing right now,” Davis said.

Greensburg's WEMW is the first WEPA station to shut down. Dates for the other four have not been set, Davis said.

Viewers have been contacting the station with questions about what will happen to the network.

“We've been getting 10 to 20 phone calls a day,” Davis said.

Depending on their location and the strength of their antenna, viewers might be able to pick up Cozi from an affiliated station, Davis said. Verizon FiOs subscribers will continue to get the channel, but it is not carried by Comcast.

Stations purchased in the auction will likely receive their money within the next few weeks, Meisch said. Once they do, they must shut down within 180 days, although most will be allowed to request two 90-day extensions.

More than 2,000 stations nationwide were eligible to participate in the auction, and 175 received payouts. Most of those will shut down, while a few will move to other channels.

Many stations, even those that didn't participate in the auction, will need to move to other channels to clear up bandwidth, Meisch said.

“There's going to be some shifting of the channels. The simplest way of describing this auction is that the TV band is a little bit smaller,” he said.

The moves — involving a total of 987 stations nationally and 14 in Western Pennsylvania — will happen gradually over the next three years. All Western Pennsylvania channel changes are set to happen in summer 2019.

The FCC will pay all stations forced to move to cover the costs of switching channels, Meisch said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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