Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on July 29th, 2014
Media Alliance has been involved with the sale/liquidation of the 5th largest public television station in California, KCSM-TV, headquartered at the College of San Mateo for 50 years, for several years. Since 2011, we’ve been following the station’s fate through two sale processes into the final May 2014 decision, when the trustees of the San Mateo Community College District signed on the dotted line with a fully-owned subsidiary of hedge firm the Blackstone Group to sell off the station’s spectrum to wireless companies in a spectrum auction.
On the evening the final decision was made in May of 2013, the trustees rushed to a vote and called private security over concerns about disruptions to the meeting by a few community advocates who came to the meeting to try to change the board’s mind – including MA executive director Tracy Rosenberg, former KRON host Henry Tenenbaum, KAXT owner Ravi Kaipur and patent attorney and media activist Pat Reilly.
Since that day, under the operational supervision of the hedge firm, KCSM-TV, whose licensed signal can reach 10 counties in Northern California, runs on 60 different cable systems and reaches half a million viewers weekly, has run a feed of international news programs produced by Mhz Worldview, which includes regular Russia Today news coverage, Blue Ocean Network, CCTV and a surprisingly popular international mystery series. Mhz Worldview describes itself an independent noncommercial global news service specializing in presenting international content to American audiences.
Much to our surprise at Media Alliance, after a year of silence on the KCSM-TV issue, we suddenly received a flood of calls from KCSM-TV viewers, upset because the Mhz Worldview programming had suddenly disappeared. Many of them were newer viewers to the station, who were totally unaware of the lengthy sale and liquidation process that went on from 2011-2013.
Among other stories, one elderly gentleman talked of getting news he couldn’t get anywhere else from the RT broadcasts on KCSM-TV, which he greatly valued. Another new listener Kendahsi Haley in Oakland sent this email to KCSM:
“I beg you to continue and expand the international mystery programs. They have made KCSM my FAVORITE station on comcast in Oakland. Why would you end the programs that set your channel apart? American and British programs are stupid, silly and juvenile. What you offer is intelligent and perfect for global minded people such as myself. Both the news programs and the international mystery programs are outstanding. Please please please do not change my world by removing the only intelligent stimulating program on TV. THANK YOU for considering my request. K. Haley
All in all, we clocked more than a dozen phone calls and emails and this was from viewers who went to the rather extraordinary effort of googling old articles that Media Alliance had written during our advocacy work to try to save the station for the Bay Area.
Getting to the bottom of what happened was confusing. Mhz Worldview placed a statement on their website disavowing any knowledge of the reasons and stating, as had been our understanding, that their program was provided to KCSM-TV for free.
KCSM-TV’s website contained a dire statement attaching blame to Mhz Worldview for not adhering to FCC regulations regarding underwriting and call-to-action announcements, a somewhat odd declaration when the programs are carried on DirecTV, 29 other broadcast stations, and 38 cable systems including Time-Warner, Comcast, Verizon, Charter and Cox.
Here is KCSM-TV’s statement in its entirety:
“It was necessary for KCSM to terminate its agreement with MHz Networks because MHz’s practices did not meet our standards or, in our opinion on advice of counsel, legal requirements for non-commercial stations. We complained to MHz repeatedly regarding underwriting and political call-to-action messages that did not comply with FCC regulations. MHZ has been either unable or unwilling to bring its broadcasts into compliance with the applicable requirements. KCSM is responsible for station programming and legal compliance. The station, not MHz, would answer to the FCC in the event of a complaint. For these reasons KCSM was obligated to discontinue airing MHz Worldview”.
So after reviewing the situation, we came to the conclusion that the motivation was not program transgressions by Mhz Worldview, but the announcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it was moving ahead with the spectrum auction. The trustees at the San Mateo Community College District were moving to eliminate any audience the station had accidentally acquired via the Mhz feed in order to limit the angry response when viewers found the station sold out from under them, a response Media Alliance had tried to elicit for years, but not really succeeded at because the station remained on the air during the entire process of its planned destruction.
So our response to the callers and emailers: this is called the elimination of the audience. It happens before the elimination of the outlet.
KCSM’s fate seems to be sealed in stone. The time when the Bay Area could mobilize to save it has passed and sadly the energy wasn’t there. But when they start to eliminate the audience, watch out. What you watch or listen to could be next on the auction block.