Enemies Sharpen Their Knives

NAB's power is seen to be waning

The National Association of Broadcasters has built a record of near invincibility on Capitol Hill under the leadership of President Eddie Fritts. But last week, the NAB's luck may have run out.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and public advocates vowed to make Fritts' last year on the job a painful one by crushing NAB's top legislative goal: guaranteeing TV stations cable carriage for each of the multiple channels that going digital allows them to offer.

Fritts' aim was to overturn an FCC decision two weeks ago denying “multi­casting” carriage rights. The defeat at the FCC has helped convince public advocates that NAB's clout in Washington has been weakened.

“I really think the universe shifted a little,” says Common Cause Vice President for Advocacy Celia Wexler.

NAB's predicament is partly a result of intensified public scrutiny following uproars over media consolidation and indecency. Also, broadcasters are sitting on a valuable slice of communications spectrum that Congress desperately wants to reclaim for new technologies.

Even NAB's most likely Republican allies have backed away. As they voted last week to levy more-costly penalties against stations that violate FCC indecency restrictions, Republicans on the House floor joined Democrats in blaming TV stations for a litany of Big Media's alleged sins. Lawmakers took aim at media consolidation, Viagra ads, politically biased news, Rupert Murdoch, campaign coverage and advocacy ads.

House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) called broadcasters' reluctance to rein in sex and violence “vulgar.” His panel is expected to vote soon to make stations go all-digital and give up their old analog channels years earlier than current law requires. NAB lobbied successfully against a similar idea at the FCC last year.

Willing to deal

Public-advocacy groups have suffered years of defeats in their attempts to expand low-power radio, secure free airtime for federal candidates and strengthen children's programming quotas. Now a coalition of groups including Common Cause and the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center vows to defeat NAB's bid for greater cable-carriage rights unless stations meet FCC quotas for local political coverage and other public-interest obligations.

“We are going to make the NAB say, 'Uncle,'” boasted Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. The public advocates predict that their power, combined with the cable industry, is sufficient to block NAB's bid for multicasting-carriage rights.

If broadcasters go along, however, the activists will support multicast rights for stations that meet specific public-interest criteria.

Spurred by a Lear Center study showing that stations provided only cursory coverage of local races in 2004, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week introduced legislation that would give the FCC power to impose programming requirements on stations, including quotas for local-campaign coverage.

“I don't think they've got a snowball's chance in hell of winning multicasting-carriage rights without public-interest obligations,” says Meredith McGehee, director of media policy for the Campaign Legal Center, a group that has lobbied for free airtime for political candidates.

Fritts: bring it on

Fritts, who formally announced last week that NAB is searching for his replacement, says he's ready for one last battle. “Bring it on,” he declared. “All along, we've thought our best chances were in Congress.”

He predicts Congress and NAB will work out a package deal giving broadcasters multicasting-carriage rights in return for a firm deadline for going all-digital and returning their old analog channels to the government.

Fritts counters barbs about broadcasters' lack of political coverage and dismissed the Lear study as unfair: “The question isn't whether we serve the public interest but whether we do it the way these groups want it done.”


The Fritts Years

After an awesome 23-year run, NAB chief Eddie Fritts is about to step down. His record is awesome—but not flawless. He helped the industry shed onerous rules limiting the size and power of radio- and TV-station owners. At the end, however, he couldn't repair fissures that have divided broadcasters in fundamental ways.