The crowd of broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation (NABEF) Service To America awards presentation in Washington Monday night got really quiet as they listened to what appeared to be some late-breaking news delivered deadpan by Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.
“I was just backstage actually and I just recieved a text message which may affect some of you,” he said as the group listened intently, the clink of silverware and chatter of of tabletalk giving way to the kind of hush usually reserved for a poolroom fight involving Leroy Brown.
“Apparently, and for the congressinal staff and members of Congress [in the audience] may not know this yet,” McDowell continued, “the leadership of both houses has agreed in principle to legislation that will extend until October 12 [at this point laughter broke out in the room as they realized it was a joke, or at least hoped it was] the DTV transition. “And this was at the request apparently of the NAB Radio Board,” he added. “So, the next round of drinks is on them.”
McDowell was presenting the Service To Children award to WCIU and owner Weigel Broadcasting, giving them a shout-out for volunteering to be an analog nightlight station, then a double shout-out as the only station in the Chicago market to keep the analog nightlight burning.
McDowell described the station’s Green Screen Adventures program, where a local improv group (such groups in Chicago must the the equivalent of mime troops in San Francisco) brings kid-created content to life each weekday on the station–it is an independent. After the video showing the kids productions, McDowell joked: “Why in the heck would they do that without a government mandate to do so,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience. “But that is a discussion for another day.” McDowell has long argued that stations are probably in a better position than the government to know how best to serve their local communities, which is what the Service To America awards is all about.
Weigel President Norman Shapiro accepted the award with a defense of the independence of independent broadcasters. “We are fortunate to be independent. We don’t have to call New York or some investment bankers for permission to do something,” he said. “Being independent, being free, gives us the moral opportunity to do projects like Green Screen Adventures. And we are and remain independent, notwithstanding the legislative and regulatory trend toward consolidation and resulting leverage of the big against the small. We think independence is valuable.”
Shapiro also had a bit of news. He said that beginning in the fall, Green Screen Adventures would be available nationally on This TV, the digital multicast broadcast network Weigel launched with MGM last November that he said would soon clear about 70% of the country.
NAB joint board chairman and Belo senior Adviser Jack Sander put in a plug for on-screen plugs. Giving a TV service award to ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, he pointed out that without all those companies provided material and money in exchange for getting their name and logo in the show, “it could not provide the invaluable service to families in need, showing the “positive power of product placement.
But the longest and loudest applause was reserved for a couple of showstealers. They were the cute-as-buttons, bubbly-as-sparking cider, poised-beyond-their years Kelsi and Rachel Okun, daughters of NBC Washington executive Bob Okun. They received the Guardian Award for their THANKS USA initiative, which encourages donations to a fund to help educate the families of service men and women. Okun’s vest buttons all appeared to be intact after the ceremony.
In three yeras, the THANKS USA program has raised and awarded over $5 million to spouses and children of service members.
Dave Lougee, president of Gannett Broadcasting, had some advice for an audience in search of the “up” in a down market. “All of us in the broadcasting industry are dealing with audience fragmentation and changing business models,” he said. “All of us are looking for those things that make us unique in our marketplace, and I think that this is a good night for us all to remind ourselves that nothing makes us more unique and relevant than the way we serve our communities, and never have our communities needed us more than they do now in all of our professional lifetime.”
At one point early in the proceedings, NAB Education Foundation Presdient Marcellus Alexander pointed out that there were only 4 days to the DTV transition, and got a rousing cheer (of relief?) from the crowd.
A brief, informal poll of some attendees resulted in a consensus that there would be some folks who would need help after June 12, but that the DTV switch-over June 12 would not result in major problems for either broadcasters or their viewers. “We were ready Feb. 17,” said one NAB board member.