Franks: The Next Fritts?

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After surviving a bitter contract dispute last spring, National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts is planning to retire from the trade group well before his current term expires in the spring of 2006.

Lobbyists for several TV station groups say the leading candidate to succeed him is CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks, a Washington veteran who currently heads the network’s digital television operations, programming standards and practices and other special projects for parent company Viacom.

In fact, Fritts is leaning towards announcing his retirement this April at the NAB’s annual convention in Las Vegas. Fritts has shared his desire to step down with several Washington lobbyists, though none would speak on the record for this story.

A motivation for leaving early, he’s told confidants, is that he has tired of navigating frequent conflicts between the fractious TV and radio interests within NAB’s membership.

“He’s ready to leave,” said one industry executive who’s talked with Fritts about his plans.

“Eddie is interested in an orderly transition and wants to give the board ample time to prepare,” said another source close to Fritts.

Fritts and other NAB officials declined to comment.

Franks’ current duties have kept him on top of the most critical and politically controversial issues broadcasters are grappling with in Washington, including the switch to digital TV and the FCC’s crackdown on indecency.

Franks also is respected among the various factions within NAB and is viewed as a likely peacemaker who could lure CBS and the other major networks back to the trade group. The networks dropped their membership one-by-one as non-network TV station groups fought to retain ownership caps that prevent the networks from buying more stations.

Owners of network affiliates fear the networks’ will gain too much leverage over affiliation contracts with other owners if they are allowed to grow.

“The next chairman has got to reunite the industry,” said one TV station group official. Rather than fighting each other, broadcasters ought to be putting all their effort into securing cable carriage guarantees for all the new channels that switching to digital allows them to offer.

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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.