Fritts' Farewell: Stay Vigilant, Stay Local

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NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts delivered his final address to the association's annual convention on April 18. In this portion of his address, he looks to the challenges facing broadcasters in months and years ahead:

My friends, through the years I have walked miles over the floor of this convention. I've walked miles through the corridors of Congress and the FCC. I've been in numerous countries around the world and I'll let you in on a secret: It's apparent to me that our system of free over-the-air radio and television is the envy of the world.

As always, we have dozens of important issues on the horizon, and over time, we will deal with those as in the past. However, there are four major issues that I believe require more immediate attention.

First, the rewrite of the Telecom Act: Some have said this could be “the mother of all legislative battles,” as it has the potential to reshape every communications company on the globe. Because of the complexity and immensity of this endeavor, many predict it will take months, if not years to finalize a package. I happen to believe we have both challenges and opportunities, but make no mistake, the stakes are high.

Also in Congress, there is a move afoot to prematurely turn off analog television service as early as Dec. 31, 2006. This could disenfranchise millions of Americans from access to their local TV stations. There are approximately 1,500 stations on the air in digital but only a small percentage of DTV sets in the marketplace. Broadcasters are doing their job, but it's easy to understand why a premature cutoff of analog broadcasting could lead to total marketplace confusion.

The third element we mentioned is HD Radio, better known as digital radio for terrestrial stations. It will bring CD-quality sound to FM stations, AM stations will be the equivalent of today's FM stations, and with expanded bandwidth, HD Radio will be able to provide exciting new services to our listeners.

One of the real front-burner issues in Congress is pending legislation regarding indecent programming. Responsible industry self-regulation is far preferable to government regulation when it comes to program content. There are serious First Amendment concerns in this area. But if Congress decides to regulate broadcasters for indecency, does it make any sense for cable, satellite TV, satellite radio to get a free pass?

If you would allow me, I want to offer a little tough love here. NAB can prevent—and has prevented—many bad things from happening to you in Washington. But we cannot stop the inevitable advance of technology, nor do you want us to.

Utilizing cellphones, the Internet, and countless wireless devices, broadcasting can and must be part of the technological platform of the future. The key is to take local content that we provide, digitize it and distribute it in new ways that are copyright-protected. Our future is in combining the domestic with the digital. Localism and public service are our franchises, and ours alone.

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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.