The public broadcasting television station serving Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, WXEL, is in talks to merge with WPBT2, which serves Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, a combination the two stations say would create the nation’s seventh-largest television market.
The discussions were disclosed in a joint news release Thursday, issued after a document outlining the merger was leaked to the media. It revealed that the new, larger entity would be called South Florida PBS.
WPBT now serves the 16th largest market in the country and WXEL the 38th largest.
“The new South Florida PBS would be a powerful public broadcasting service, and Florida’s largest public media company, blending outstanding programming from PBS with new and original programming on a scale beyond what is available today,” said Dolores Sukhdeo, CEO of WPBT2.
James Patterson, the Palm Beach-based bestselling author and vice chair of the WXEL board, also touted the merger.
“The combination of resources and talent at WXEL-TV, WPBT2 and PBS can provide South Florida with a new level of community involvement and leadership that will encourage young people to read and learn, as well as expose them to cultural programming that will enrich their lives,” he was quoted as saying in the press statement.
A selling point made by both stations is that they would no longer air the same programs at the same time as they often do, creating more choices for viewers in areas reached by both stations. While WPBT2 would continue to carry PBS prime time programming, WXEL would carry only 25 percent of that programming — paying much less to PBS — and fill the rest of air time with alternative programs bought from other sources.
But with the Federal Communication Commission planning an auction of television broadcasting spectrum rights, where owners of those rights could sell them for millions of dollars, the possibility was also raised that the WXEL spectrum could eventually be sold, providing funding for PBS South Florida
Bernie Henneberg, WXEL CEO, denied that would happen.
“We’re going to use our spectrum to serve the community,” he said Thursday. “We aren’t going to sell it.”
But when a reporter asked Sukhdeo the same question her answer was that it is “way too early” to speculate on the FCC auction.
“Our intention going in is to provide complimentary service,” she said.
Judith Garcia, a board member of WXEL, said she thinks the merger is the only way WXEL can survive.
“The idea is to have one umbrella, with both stations under that umbrella,” she said.
But she said she was aware of the FCC auction and said the spectrum rights controlled by WXEL are “extremely valuable.”
“There are a lot of things that have to be thought through,” she said.
Both Sukhdeo and Henneberg said the finances of their stations, which rely largely on local fund raising and underwriters, had been difficult in recent years. WXEL Vice President Bill Scott said the merger would create a larger entity that would reach more viewers and that would hopefully attract more corporate underwriters and other donors.
Both WXEL and WPBT2 emphasized that money saved by the merger and any increase in fund raising would help produce more local programming, a major PBS goal.
The leaked document speaks of enhancing local programming using a “regional approach” that would serve all the areas served by the two stations.
The leaked document states that preliminary work on the merger should be done by Oct.1. In proposing the merger the local stations cited previous mergers of PBS stations in both New York City and the Cincinnati-Dayton area.
The plan would require the installation of equipment to extend the range of each station and that would require funding. WPBT2 would extend its signal to some 300,000 more households mostly in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, and WXEL would expand its reach to some 700,000 more households, in Miami-Dade and Monroe.