Fritts to nets: Come back

Says similarities between network and station interests outweigh differences

NAB President Eddie Fritts began the 2002 convention by asking CBS, NBC and Fox to rejoin the association.

"It is true," Fritts said, "that we disagree with our network friends over the 35% TV ownership cap," the principal reason that all the networks but ABC pulled their stations from the association.

"But I would suggest that on virtually all other major issues, the NAB and the networks agree. While the 35% issue is vitally important, it is but one issue. Given the panoply of other challenges we face as broadcasters, we welcome the other networks to follow the ABC lead and come back under the NAB umbrella." At press time, CBS and Fox weren't commenting and NBC had not returned calls.

Fritts ran through a checklist of legislative issues, calling "one of our biggest achievements "the defeat of the Torricelli amendment on campaign finance reform, which would have given candidates deep discounts on airtime. Fritts characterized the amendment as promoting "nothing more than a subsidy so that candidates could buy more negative attack ads, not more political discourse."

"You can bet that when Washington politicians talk about reform," Fritts said, "it's not themselves they intend to reform."

But Fritts added that a "son of Torricelli" will again raise the issue of free airtime, likely in this Congressional session."

"That's why we, as broadcasters, must remain unified and vigilant because, in Washington, there are no final victories and no final defeats."

Fritts also highlighted NAB's opposition to the proposed EchoStar-DirecTV merger. "If you are a television broadcaster," he said, "this cannot be encouraging news."

"EchoStar recently went to Congress and promised that if its merger goes through," Fritts said, "it will begin carrying all local TV stations in all markets within two years.

But, Fritts continued, "two days later, EchoStar went to court challenging its own pledge. And Just last week, EchoStar went to theSupreme Court challenging the territorial exclusivity of local broadcasters, which is the fundamental bedrock of our local television system."

Although, Fritts said, NAB endorses carriage of all local stations via satellite, given EchoStar's track record, "we have to believe that our best hope of achieving total carriage is through competition and not through an EchoStar monopoly."

Regarding satellite radio, Fritts warned that the radio industry may be facing "a competitor that plays fast and loose with the rules."

"XM and Sirius, while claiming to be national in purpose and scope and obtaining their FCC licenses on that basis, are quietly trying to move into local service through their massive repeater networks. The FCC intended for those repeaters to supplement satellite service—not to enable a totally different business. And I call upon the FCC to repeal any special temporary authority for local repeaters that goes beyond the purpose of supplementing satellite coverage."

Yet, Fritts predicted that the biggest story in radio in the near future would not be satellite radio but the transition to digital terrestrial radio.

"iBiquity is on the cusp of delivering in-band, on-channel digital radio" that will significantly improve both AM and FM bands, he said.

On the issue of digital TV, Fritts said, NAB embraced the principles of the plan introduced last week by FCC Chairman Michael Powell. "The Chairman's proposal is a terrific step forward. There is gravitational pull to digital that is inevitable, and broadcasters will continue working with both the FCC and Congress to advance the DTV transition."

Performing for NAB the night before, Tonight
Show host Jay Leno predicted that at the present rate, by the next millenium there could be as many as 75 people with HDTV.

Fritts voiced disappointment that the rate structure for radio streaming set by the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel "misinterpreted the intent of Congress and erroneously imposed high rates on broadcasting, and we're fighting to have the opinion voided. It's puzzling to us," Fritts said, "why those who control the music industry want fees to be excessive to the point that many radio stations will be driven off the Web."

As part of its opening session, NAB honored former FCC Chairman and media law icon Dick Wiley with its 2002 Distinguished Service Award (see Face Time, page 29).


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.