Affils React Angrily to Reversal by NAB

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Key affiliates were angered last week by word that the National Association of Broadcasters staff had decided to change course and fight legislation aimed at rolling back the Federal Communications Commission’s recent relaxation of its ownership rules-all without the approval of the association’s board.
“There is something very wrong going on at the NAB,” said one affiliate source, who asked not to be identified.
Added Alan Frank, an NAB board member and president of Post-Newsweek Stations, “Clearly this is not where the board left off.”
At least the way the affiliates were reading the situation, the NAB was charged with fighting for legislation to roll back the cap to 35 percent.
But at a press briefing, Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, said he believed a change in lobbying strategy was necessary to stop what he described as a “nightmarish” reregulatory train.
“The snowball was rolling down the hill,” Mr. Fritts said.
Affiliates vowed to fight NAB, in part by announcing that the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, a group representing 600 affiliates, would continue to lobby for legislation that would cast the 35 percent cap in legislative concrete.
“As long as it’s a clean bill that supports the 35 percent only, we’re right there,” said Mr. Frank, who chairs NASA.
Besides flouting the NAB board’s will, Mr. Frank said, NAB’s change in course shot the industry in the foot by alienating longtime supporters of cap legislation on Capitol Hill.
“To withdraw support after they’ve worked long and hard has the potential for causing significant long-term harm for broadcasters,” Mr. Frank said.
Anger on Capitol Hill
Among the lawmakers who reacted angrily to the NAB’s action were Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“The NAB’s decision to reverse itself on the issue of the national television ownership cap is an unfortunate retreat from its proud history of support for localism, diversity and competition in the broadcast marketplace,” Rep. Dingell said. “My efforts, and those of my colleagues, to repeal the FCC’s ill-advised decision to raise the ownership cap to 45 percent will not be deterred. And I remain confident that many of NAB’s own members will continue to support us.”
Added Sen. Hollings, “The NAB’s recent about-face is regrettable, but this battle is being fought for the American people and diversity of expression, not the NAB.
“Americans from widely differing perspectives have made it quite clear that they want the FCC’s ruling reversed,” he said. “We will continue to move forward on our bill and work to ensure that the public airwaves serve the public interest and not the economic interest of a few big media conglomerates.”
Some affiliates were speculating that the networks sold Mr. Fritts on the change in lobbying course, because the networks were concerned that a clean 35 percent bill was indeed attainable-and might be approved as a rider on an appropriations bill that is up for a vote by the House Appropriations Committee this Wednesday.
Rollback Fears
But other industry sources said they feared a rider could just as easily be beefed up to include other rollback provisions unacceptable to NAB members.
Also of concern is that the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Hollings-have already made clear their support for rollback legislation.
“It looks like the perfect storm,” said one industry lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, adding that at last count 38 senators and 160 congressmen had endorsed rollback initiatives.
According to Mr. Fritts, the change was a response to the genuine political threat to the industry.
The FCC’s action spawned “a lot more anti-media sentiment than anyone would have anticipated,” Mr. Fritts said.
In a briefing for reporters last week, Mr. Fritts also insisted that the dramatic shift is consistent with an NAB TV board directive in June advising the staff to lobby for cap legislation “to the extent that deregulatory gains consistent with past NAB policy objectives are not jeopardized.”
Despite the affiliate beefs, Carl Gardner, chairman of the NAB’s radio board and president, radio, Journal Broadcast Group, said Mr. Fritts’s decision enjoyed the support of many industry radio and TV station representatives.
“It’s really not realistic to expect that a clean 35 percent-only bill could emerge from the legislative process at this time,” Mr. Gardner said. “The concern is the longer the process continues on the Hill, the greater the chance that some kind of bill we don’t want has to gain momentum.”
David Kennedy, immediate past joint NAB board chairman, and president of Susquehanna Radio Corp., said, “Their actions were not only consistent with board direction, but indicative of the political savvy and judgment that we rely upon them to bring to all our issues.”
Sources said as part of his new campaign, Mr. Fritts has asked representatives of the networks to unite in battle with the NAB.
To help carry the fight, the nearly 100 general managers of the TV stations owned by the Big 4 TV networks are slated to be in town July 16 to lobby against legislation. The action was being billed as the first official act of the Local Broadcasters Alliance, an owned-and-operated station group the networks put together behind the scenes after they dropped out of the NAB in dispute over the cap issue.
“I think [Mr. Fritts] is going to work for the networks,” one affiliate source said.
Despite the new commonality of interests between the networks and NAB, sources said it would be premature to decide yet whether any of the networks will rejoin the association.