CMU seeks to use Flint TV station purchase to expand academic programs

The Central Michigan University Board of Trustees approved a proposal Tuesday to submit an offer to purchase WFUM TV in Flint for $1 million.

The television station, owned and operated by the University of Michigan, broadcasts from Bay City to the metro Detroit area.

CMU received a $750,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, which will be used to equip a mobile production truck with high-definition digital production equipment, said Ed Grant, general manager of CMU Public Broadcasting.

The truck and equipment was originally intended for use at CMU stations in the rural areas of central and northern Michigan, where the digital transition is slower. However, the university now plans to use the truck in Flint after the station is purchased, Grant said.

The Board met in special session Tuesday in the President’s Conference Room in the Bovee University Center to discuss the television station.

Interim University President Kathy Wilbur said the Board viewed the station as an opportunity to significantly expand the university’s coverage into critical areas such as southeast Michigan.

“It allows us to expand academic programs on the behalf of CMU, especially through ProfEd,” she said. “We’re so focused on our enrollment question and retention question, this gives us another avenue in which to pursue that.”

Public Broadcasting will draft a purchase agreement and interim management agreement for CMU to take over the station as soon as possible.

“This is very common in the broadcast world because of the normal delays in getting approval for a change in ownership through the FCC,” Grant said.

Under the interim management agreement, the university could control the station’s programming despite not being the official owner. Broadcasting could begin by the end of November, Grant said.

‘Not a front-end payment’

Public Broadcasting first took interest in the station after U-M said it would sell it in April. U-M employees at WFUM were notified that most of their positions would be eliminated, Grant said. At the same time, CMU Public Broadcasting will likely create new positions.

The university also plans to change the call letters of the station.

Funding for the $1 million purchase will come from university reserves, and Public Broadcasting will reimburse CMU. CMU will make a series of scheduled payments to U-M.

“We’re very careful about making sure it’s not a front-end payment,” said David Burdette, vice president for Finance and Administrative Services.

CMU Public Broadcasting reaches out to a potential 2.4 million viewers in mid- and northern-Michigan. The addition of the Flint and metro Detroit areas would mean an increase to about 8 million potential viewers.

Overlap market?

However, possible problems include an overlap market.

Other public broadcasting stations have a presence in the area and would see competition when it comes to fundraising, Grant said. The FCC could choose to deny the change in ownership because of it.

“There is a great potential for partnering,” Wilbur said. “I think that public broadcasting needs to consider much more collaborative efforts in order to survive in an ever-changing media market.”

During the meeting, the Board approved a proposal to pay back $619,489 to the National Science Foundation. The money was originally given to CMU as part of a research project grant, but the project was stopped after it was determined it could not be completed successfully.