It's not every day that a civic-minded, modestly funded public broadcast entity is presented with a whopping $131.5 million payday and given the chance to "reinvent itself."
But that's the news and opportunity the Federal Communications Commission handed Thursday to Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, license-holder for WYBE (Channel 35), the Old City- and Manayunk-based TV channel better known to viewers as MiND.
Only one small stickler: WYBE will most likely be giving up its broadcast rights and mandatory cable coverage in the deal – as part of the FCC's Broadcast Incentive Auction.
But given the web-based world of live streaming and on-demand TV of today, is the loss of its over-the-air signal really much of a sacrifice?
"We're proud of what we've done. It's a big day," said CEO Howard Blumenthal. "The future is full of promise. There has been a lot of discussion on our board level and across the public TV community about what comes next. I've actually encouraged a number of public stations to think seriously about this option, consider the ways we'll be able to do great new work. Now we and some others will have to get down to the business of executing it . . . considering our long-term community service proposition."
"Although our television broadcasting will end, Independence Media will continue to pursue its mission," seconded Rene DeGeorge Smith, chair of the station's board of directors, whose ranks include Feather Houstoun, former president of the William Penn Foundation. "Now more than ever, we believe in the power of media and new technologies to connect communities, promote diversity, and encourage understanding."
WYBE has been an alternative to the more-watched and better-financed public TV stations in the area — WHYY TV12; WLVT, Channel 39; and NJTV, New Jersey 23 — "which will all continue to serve the community well," said Blumenthal.
WYBE went on the air in 1990 on the UHF frequency originally occupied by WHYY. It has long served up specialty shows for children; Hispanic, African American, LGBT, and Jewish viewers; and political activists with a liberal persuasion.
Last year, it won major awards for On the Other Side of the Fence, a documentary about a collaborative theater project engaging students from a private school with those in a school serving severely handicapped people with cerebral palsy.
Since rebranding itself in 2008 as "MiND: Media Independence," Channel 35 has focused a big chunk of the day on short-form programs created by independent and student filmmakers — documentaries, how-to, and performance clips — "which have been used by stations all over the country," said Blumenthal.
More predictive of its future direction: MiND became the first broadcast television station in the United States whose program stream was simultaneously available online as both a live internet stream and on demand, Blumenthal said.
And with multiplexed digital broadcasting capacity, the station has also reached out to alternative audiences with simulcast (35.2, 35.3, 35.4) standard-definition channels carrying Japan's English language NHK World, France24, and the Russian RT news/documentary channel, "all of whom are also available as live internet streams," said Blumenthal.
Despite its relatively modest ratings and annual operating budget of under $2 million, WYBE's robust digital UHF frequency made it the equivalent of prime beachfront real estate (in off-hurricane/no-waters-rising season).
That's why the station scored such a high bid in the FCC's auction process, released Thursday, which was designed to pick up and repurpose parts of the TV spectrum for wireless communications services.
"Our signal footprint covers about 10 million people," noted Blumenthal. "We even reach high-rise apartment dwellers in Manhattan . . . The FCC originally estimated our bandwidth would fetch more than $500 million at auction. I estimated it would be more like $50 million. So the final bid still looked very good to us."
No stranger to challenging the media status quo, Blumenthal joined WYBE in 2003 after an extensive broadcasting career that included stints at Nickelodeon and MTV, "where I broke the strictly music video format with Remote Control."
He later worked in home-computer software, then jumped into the public TV realm creating and producing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, considered in some quarters (like People magazine) the best educational TV show of all time.
He also did a stint at CDNow when it was "Philadelphia-based, the largest music site on the internet, a large online record store and the first home for internet radio. We had a large audience even in the age of dial-up. That's where I first created short-form documentaries, which gave me the confidence it would be a good way to go on TV as well."
And also for the next iteration of MiND TV, or whatever it's called?
"We'll continue our mission, focusing on international issues, diversity, helping people think clearly, and promoting friendship and understanding," Blumenthal said.