The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A major New York TV station could win $900 million — if it goes off the air. Here’s why.

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The Federal Communications Commission has published a massive list of the cash windfalls that thousands of  TV stations nationwide stand to receive from the government next year — if they agree to relinquish their chunk of the airwaves.

WCBS-TV in New York City could win as much as $900 million for going off the air, a result of its position in one of the country's busiest markets. Smaller stations such as KAWE in Minneapolis might receive around $20 million.

The figures represent the maximum amount each broadcaster could receive for participating in a never-before-tried auction of wireless airwaves, one that's designed to transfer control of that  invisible real estate to wireless carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile. Cellular providers say they need access to more of the radio spectrum to build out next-generation mobile data networks. (All wireless data, from TV signals to 4G LTE, ride atop spectrum, a finite resource.)

Now that they have the prices in hand, broadcasters will need to figure out what to do. They'll need to ask themselves: Is the money on the table worth giving up my place on the airwaves? For some TV station owners who've been thinking about exiting the market anyway, this could be an attractive time to do it.

While going off the air entirely could net broadcasters the highest payout, other options — such as transmitting on a different frequency — will still offer a bit of cash.

The question now is whether broadcasters will view the government's offer as favorably as the FCC hopes. The rest of the auction — the part where the government takes the reclaimed spectrum and sells it off to the wireless carriers — depends on that outcome. Without substantial participation from the broadcasters, there won't be a whole lot of airwaves to sell to the likes of T-Mobile. Which would kind of defeat the point.

"Today is a watershed moment," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "For all practical purposes, we’ve fired the starting gun: The release of final opening bid prices … provides broadcasters with all of the information they need to decide whether to apply to participate in the auction."