Fritts Confirms Plan to Exit NAB

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Confirming that he’s nearing the end of his 23-year run at the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts announced last week that he has asked the board to launch a search for his successor.

Mr. Fritts, who turns 64 this month, plans to remain at his post until his replacement is on board. A contract extension he signed last year would allow him to serve until at least Sept. 1.

The first order of business for the NAB search committee-co-chaired by Phil Lombardo, NAB joint board chairman and CEO of Citadel Communications, and David Kennedy, NAB’s immediate past joint board chairman and president and CEO of Susquehanna Media Co.-will be to hire an executive recruiter to line up candidates for the job, which pays $1 million-plus annually.

“Eddie Fritts has had a remarkably effective career in Washington,” Mr. Lombardo said in a statement. “We owe it to NAB membership to conduct an exhaustive search.”

In an interview last week, Mr. Fritts said his proudest accomplishment as NAB chief has been to build the organization into one that is widely recognized as a formidable grass-roots lobbying group.

“In 1982, when I first got here, [former Republican Sen.] Bob Packwood said NAB couldn’t lobby its way out of a paper bag,” Mr. Fritts said. “I took it personally.”

Among Mr. Fritts’ most impressive contributions to the industry’s bottom line was his successful push for legislation passed in 1992 that established retransmission consent rules. That legislation gave the major broadcast TV groups-particularly the networks-the leverage needed to create lucrative cable TV networks.

In addition, a 1996 bill backed by NAB paved the way for broadcast TV stations to get a second television channel at no cost to help them make the switch to digital TV technology. Industry critics charge that those second channels are worth a fortune.

“The broadcasting industry should build a statue in Eddie’s likeness out of gold,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy. “Over the last 20 years, his lobbying prowess has enriched broadcasters by billions of dollars.”

Beyond his successes in winning pro-industry regulatory policies, Mr. Fritts, according to industry sources, also warrants kudos for transforming the industry’s annual convention from a ho-hum engineering conference with attendance of 20,000 into a glitzy, high-tech extravaganza that regularly attracts crowds of 100,000 and generates more than $20 million in profits for the association each year. With the convention’s help, NAB now has a financial reserve of $80 million, up from $1 million a decade ago.

The NAB’s reputation for political prowess slipped a notch during the past several years, largely because the association’s affiliate-dominated board forced NAB to fight a network effort to dramatically relax national TV station ownership limits. Under hostile fire from the NAB and the affiliates, the Big 4 TV networks bailed out of the organization, dealing a major blow to NAB’s prestige.

As a sign of NAB’s diminished capacity, the association lost a key battle to the cable TV industry earlier this month when the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-1 to reject an association proposal that would have required cable operators to carry all of the programming streams broadcasters offer on their digital channels.

The industry group’s image also suffered last year when NAB’s radio and TV board members battled over Mr. Fritts’ employment fate. Radio board members charged that the TV board’s Mr. Lombardo was trying to oust Mr. Fritts-an allegation Mr. Lombardo denied.

When Mr. Fritts signed his contract extension last year, radio board members believed it important that he be allowed to serve beyond June 2005, when Mr. Lombardo’s appointment as the association’s joint board chairman expires. But sources said Mr. Lombardo will be allowed to continue serving as co-chairman of the search committee for Mr. Fritts’ successor after the expiration of Mr. Lombardo’s term as joint board chairman.

Those who know him call Mr. Fritts a class act, and it’s a reputation that has served him well. When he announced his retirement to his staff last week, he received an emotional standing ovation. “To say Eddie is loved by his staff would be the understatement of the year,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

At hearings last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, paid Mr. Fritts the highly unusual courtesy of stepping down from the dais to shake his hand.

Rep. Barton called the NAB chief “a gentleman of integrity who represented the industry with fairness and honor.”