NAB Board Bickers Over Legal Bills, Lombardo1/25/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern
When the last of the major TV networks quit NAB last June, it was supposed to be the end of the infighting that has plagued the lobby for the past several years.
But last's week NAB winter board meeting in Key Biscayne, Fla., seemed as dysfunctional as ever as some radio and TV board members complained about fat legal bills to battle the networks on media-ownership limits and plans for more board meetings. Even the board-member spouses came away unhappy.
Fritts and other NAB staff members declined comment on the internal politics, and Lombardo couldn't be reached. "What happens at the meeting stays in the meeting," said spokesman Dennis Wharton.
Not hardly. According to board members who asked for anonymity, many radio and some TV members were upset to learn of additional legal bills for the media ownership fight—around $400,000—after they had already approved the budget for the year. These sources said the latest bills push the total legal fees to more than $1 million.
The money goes to Washington-based attorney Jonathan Blake, who represents major network-affiliated station groups in the battle. So far, that effort has been partly successful. The FCC increased the cap to 45%, but Congress trumped the FCC, moving it back to 39%. A federal court is now reviewing the cap (see page 5).
Some pointed a finger at Lombardo for failing to keep them fully informed on the legal bills. He was presiding at his first board meeting since replacing Jim Yager, of Barrington Broadcasting, as joint board chairman last September. Yager had stepped down for personal reasons.
Board members also criticized Lombardo's heavy-handedness in dealing with a protest by board members' spouses.
The board adopted Lombardo's plan to increase the number of board meetings each year from two to three or four and to eliminate the long tradition of holding the winter meeting in a warm-weather resort.
The separate radio and TV boards and the joint board approved the change, agreeing with Lombardo that more meetings will allow NAB to react more quickly on fast-moving issues and that holding all of them in Washington will make them more businesslike.
However, several board members were surprised by what they said was Lombardo's abrupt refusal to hear the spouses' protest of the plan at the closing joint board meeting and his subsequent refusal to apologize. "It was just not right," said one radio board member.
Others on both the radio and TV side downplayed the incident. "It was a tempest in a teapot," said one radio member.
TV Board Vice Chair Andy Fisher, of Cox Television, defended Lombardo, saying he was courteous in denying the spouses their moment.
Fisher conceded that Lombardo is apt to ruffle feathers. "He's an acquired taste, but those who know him invariably conclude that he is honest and prepared to do the work."
Fisher also that, if some members were upset with the legal bills, it was only because Lombardo was following protocol, which required him to inform the TV board before the radio board. To do otherwise, Fisher said, "would have been inappropriate."
The criticism of Lombardo may reflect deeper resentment of the coalition of TV board members that now dominate the board. The coalition also includes Mike Fiorile, of Dispatch Broadcast Group; David Barrett, of Hearst-Argyle; and Alan Frank, of Post-Newsweek.
The coalition has pushed the NAB staff to vigorously oppose the FCC's raising of the station-ownership cap, even when the staff felt it was counterproductive to the industry's larger interests. That has caused friction between the coalition and Fritts and has triggered talk that Fritts's contract may not be renewed—it expires in spring 2005—or that the coalition may try to oust him.
If so, a number of board members are ready to back him to the hilt. "Eddie is around as long as he wants to be," said one. Another radio member pointed to the fact that Fritts has helped grow NAB's coffers from $1.5 million to $80 million. "There isn't a radio guy who would even think of replacing Fritts, and the radio board has 60% of the vote."