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NAB has positions tangled, some say

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In broadcasting circles, the shorthand way to spell “inconsistent” these days is N-A-B.
At least top TV network executives were using the two terms interchangeably last week after learning that the National Association of Broadcasters had formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to ax rules that prevent broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.
“The affiliate-driven NAB position is both unprincipled and unsustainable,” said one key network executive who asked not to be identified.
It’s not as if the networks oppose getting rid of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership regulation. Indeed, Fox parent News Corp., which has significant newspaper and broadcasting interests, has major financial incentive to want the regulation to disappear.
But at the same time, it burns the networks that the NAB has been lobbying the government to keep in place another rule that bars broadcasters from acquiring TV stations serving more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV households. That’s a regulation the TV networks desperately want to ax so they can buy more stations.
According to network officials, the major difference between the two regulations is that the affiliate groups that dominate NAB’s TV board, many from companies with newspapers, support elimination of the cross-ownership rule and oppose relaxing the 35 percent cap.
The affiliates have made no secret of the fact that they fear eliminating the 35 percent cap would let the networks get too big and powerful.
Asked to explain the apparent contradiction in the group’s deregulatory approach, Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman said: “It’s very simple: Our board sets the policy directions of NAB.”
Said Gil Schwartz, CBS Television executive VP, communications, “We’ve always found it curious that the folks in this group can be so selective, depending on where their self-interests lie.”
Added Bob Okun, NBC Washington VP, “All of the economic and policy arguments for the cross-ownership and the broadcast ownership cap are virtually the same. Any move toward deregulation should include both rules.”
Disputes over the NAB’s lobbying position on the broadcast ownership rule drove all of the major networks except The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC out of the NAB over the past several years-even though now the decision on whether to keep the 35 percent cap is generally expected to be resolved by the courts.