TV Station Owners Aren’t Going to Get a Big Pay Day From the Wireless Industry

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holds a hearing in Washington
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holds a hearing in Washington February 26, 2015. The FCC is expected Thursday to approve Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed "net neutrality" rules, regulating broadband providers more heavily than in the past and restricting their power to control download speeds on the web. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS) - RTR4RAVK
Photograph by Yuri Gripas — Reuters

Wireless carriers and an array of other bidders at a federal airwave license auction offered only about one-quarter of what TV stations selling the rights were seeking, setting up the broadcasters for a major disappointment.

Few expected that bidders would reach broadcasters’ $88 billion request for the licenses to wireless airwaves in hundreds of markets across the country, which are currently held by TV stations. But with the first stage of the auction closed on Tuesday and bids totaling just $23 billion, the shortfall is enormous.

Shares of companies that own multiple TV stations that were expecting a huge windfall from the auction are now at risk after a strong rally over the summer. Because the Federal Communications Commission, which is overseeing the auction, announced on June 29 how much broadcasters were seeking, shares of Nexstar Broadcasting Group (NXST) jumped 16% and E.W. Scripps (SSP) 10%.

Now, the FCC will go back to broadcasters and see if they will lower their demands. The auction could go through several more stages over coming months as the FCC shifts between wireless bidders and broadcast industry sellers to try to find a middle ground for at least some of the airwave rights.

Analysts have been warning that the major players in wireless did not have the desire—or the financial wherewithal—to go crazy at the auction. AT&T (T) just paid almost $50 billion to acquire DirecTV, and Verizon Communication (VZ) is still focused on paying down debt from buying out former partner Vodafone for $130 billion two years ago. Sprint (S), carrying about $30 billion from Softbank’s acquisition, isn’t even participating.

“Broadcasters and their investors, however, might not be thrilled by the early forward results, which suggest the clearing target of the reverse auction may have to more than halve to conclude the auction,” wrote Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research, after the first stage closed.

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A pair of communications lawyers who have been following the auction had an even better quip. “You can almost hear Agent Maxwell Smart’s trademark ‘Missed it by that much!,'” wrote Scott Flick and Jessica Nyman at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP on their blog.

“The result is surely disappointing for those intent upon repurposing a big chunk of TV broadcast spectrum for what we were told was an insatiable appetite for mobile broadband spectrum, but even more so for broadcasters that had been told by the FCC that their spectrum was far more valuable for purposes other than broadcasting,” they added.

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