At NAB, the Doctor Is In
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/23/2006 8:00:00 PM
New National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr will take the stage April 24 to deliver his first “state of the industry” address at the annual NAB convention in Las Vegas. Rehr, a top Republican fundraiser and former chief lobbyist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association (he prefers diet soda), wants to sell the industry on itself. Dr. Rehr—he has a Ph.D. in economics—says broadcasters need to become better, tougher advocates for their industry and their political objectives. Broadcasters have been too defensive, he says, and that has to change. Talking up community service is fine, he suggests, but the return on that investment in goodwill needs to be quantifiable in votes and support from legislators and regulators on key issues. NAB is building a database to do just that and has put legislators on notice that it is keeping tabs via “key vote” letters to them pointing out that NAB will let its members know who voted for or against a crucial bill. Rehr sat down with B&C's John Eggerton to talk about why he is upbeat about broadcasters' future—local content, entrepreneurial spirit, multicasting—and why he “wouldn't want to be the cable people.”
What will be the thrust of your first “state of the industry” speech?
The big thing is that we cannot be defensive, that we need to adapt and evolve into the future, and that we need to go on the offense.
Has the NAB has been too defensive?
It's been somewhat defensive. It's been kind of like, “Let's just keep our hands around the marbles and make sure nobody takes the marbles, and we'll worry about five years down the road five years down the road.” The problem with that theory is that, with technology moving so quickly, with regulation and legislation changing and evolving, you have to think now about: “Where do I want to be five or 10 years down the road, and how do I get from here to there?” We have to be more aggressive.
One thing I tell our people is that, for a long time, we have been really too nice. The legislators come in, they meet the local broadcasters, and they talk to them. The broadcasters are telling them all these wonderful things they do in their community, and the legislators say, “That's nice.” But what does that mean? Do we get their co-sponsorship? Do we get their vote? Do we get their active support? Do they feel like they want to be with us to help us in our great movement, or do they just want to pat us on the head and say, “That's nice, I'll see you next year”?
At your legislative fly-in in February, you promoted a serious, organized sales-call approach to lobbying on issues. How has that worked out?
We had some good results. We had a lot of discussion about the multicasting issue, for example, and I think we got a lot of sympathetic response back from staffers and some members.
Overall, the results I got from my friends and members on Capitol Hill was that a third of our people were right on message, another third were pretty good on message, and, frankly, there is about a third that we need to continue to educate and help be better lobbyists.
Over time, we are going to kind of instill—it's not a cult—a program of helping people become better advocates, and it is attention to detail. Keep it short, keep it focused. The kind of thing that will give us a marginal edge among all the lobbying competitors out there.
Is multicasting your top legislative priority?
It is one of them. We had a meeting with all of the parties interested in multicasting here two weeks ago. We decided that we're going to need to either re-explain or reposition the issue of multicasting on Capitol Hill.
I think that the cable people, to give them credit, have given the false impression that we want more space on the tube than we are allowed, that somehow, rather than wanting the 6-megahertz tube, we really want a 12-MHz tube.
We need to think about how we reposition the word and idea of multicasting. We might even have to change the word “multicasting” to something else. We're thinking about “anti-stripping,” which would tell members that all we want is the same 6 MHz, nothing more, nothing less and that, with digital television and compressed analog, we will be able to get more channels in there. That might give us a little more momentum and propel us forward.
What are your chances of getting multicasting must-carry?
Well, if we had the vote right now, I don't think we would be successful, and that's why we are not having the vote. Ultimately, we would like to get it done before the transition on Feb. 18, 2009, and my job is to do the best I can for the members and try to get it.
Where should broadcasters be on the issue of indecency?
First, I think the broadcasters—the NAB —support the First Amendment rights for people to say whatever they want to say. I think that is a given.
Second, we need to be careful that our adversaries don't frame issues so it looks like we are always promoting indecency and, therefore, cast aspersions on us and, on Capitol Hill or at the FCC or around town, point to us and say, “They want to be indecent.” That's not it at all.
One of the things that we will be talking about at the convention will be going on the offensive with the Jack Valenti effort [to better promote the TV-ratings system].
I think, in the long term, at least on Capitol Hill, Republicans tend to be for limited government and individual responsibility. Democrats don't really want the government stepping in and deciding what words should or should not be used. So we should have a constituency up there.
If you are empowering parents, if you are taking responsibility, if you are helping people learn how to control what comes in their homes, hopefully, a lot of this indecency, these occasional slip-ups or indiscretions will fade away.
With so much multichannel video competition, how should broadcasters feel about their place in the new-media mix?
I think it is a cup–half-full industry. There are advertising challenges, business-model challenges. But I still wouldn't want to be the cable people. Their subscriptions are declining. New entrants into the market will only further erode their position.
We face some difficult challenges, but our people have this history of adapting, evolving. They are tremendously entrepreneurial.
I think that competition for distribution in the long run will financially strengthen the hand of broadcasters. We have got one thing which we do very well, which is local content, and we know how to build brands.
The more entrants into distribution, the more valuable we become. The larger cable companies are reluctant to allow every option in retransmission agreements. I'm referring to the four-letter word that begins with C, ends with H and has an AS in the middle.
But now, we have the telcos coming in, Verizon's cash agreements with CBS, rural telephone companies wanting to get into video. All the new entrants are going to have to recognize the monetary value of the broadcast signal, and they'll be more than willing to pay or provide other services. That's going to erode the marketplace position of the largest monopolistic entrant that was there first, and they will have to recognize [that value]. It's only a question of time until they pay.
Speaking of pay, how are you doing in getting the networks, other than ABC, back into the dues-paying fold [only ABC has returned after a split several years ago over the issue of a national-ownership cap].
I don't know if it's going to take three months, a year, or five years, but we are trying to communicate with their Washington lobbyists almost on a daily basis. They were involved in the retransmission coalition, a broadcast-flag coalition, and a multicasting coalition. We also have to demonstrate the value to them of why they should be members of the NAB.
I think we're doing a good job of once again emerging as the voice of broadcasting in Washington. I think the networks will recognize that, and I think they will, over time, come back into the fold.
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