Fritts Survives. Can the NAB?

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The National Association of Broadcasters is ready to keep long-time President Eddie Fritts on board for at least another two years. Two weeks ago, his future was in doubt. Still a question mark is the future of the organization itself.

At the NAB show, the organization's joint radio/TV board Chairman Phil Lombardo staged a rather public, but abortive coup to oust Fritts. (B&C, 4/26)

Deep conflicts over the group's future still smolder and threaten to break the group in two if leaders of two key constituencies—affiliates of TV networks and owners of small radio- station groups—can't come to terms soon.

Fritts's allies in the radio business rolled over his TV critics last week by winning a two-year addition to his contract, which expires in June. The extension, agreed to by the NAB's executive committee, will be formalized next month. Fritts wasn't talking about it.

But clearly, by acquiescing to Fritts's renewal, a group of TV-station execs are retreating from demands that he step down quickly. Disputes over his future pushed have NAB to the brink of internecine warfare. Retaining Fritts solves one immediate problem. Now Lombardo, CEO of TV-station group Citadel Communications is on the hot seat. He must persuade Fritts's supporters to remain the group's top elected official.

"He has a selling job to do," said William Stakelin, president of radio group Regent Communications. Stakelin and other radio members bristled under Lombardo's brusque management style, and they would like to push him out if he doesn't ease up, especially in his dealings with Fritts.

Even before this tiff, though, fights between TV and radio members over the NAB's mission have become so fierce that a formal split is a distinct possibility.

Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations and a Lombardo ally, is optimistic that won't happen. "If enough people are unhappy, over time, maybe we can't keep it together," he says. "But my belief is that a large segment of the TV and radio members are in the center and looking to find ways to keep the organization vital and moving forward."

Also said to have sided with Lombardo and Frank in the coup are Cox Television President Andrew Fisher and Hearst-Argyle President David Barrett. The four have pushed NAB to wage an unrelenting fight to cap the growth of network station ownership, which they say has given the nets too much leverage over affiliation contracts.

They also want NAB to take a higher profile in fighting the anti-indecency regulations that are working their way through Capitol Hill.

Their counterparts in the radio business say a $1 million-plus bill for lobbying the FCC and Congress against the networks is a waste. Instead, the group should be seeking ways to bring the networks and their lobbying clout back into the fold.

The prospect of a split worries Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan: "I'm sad. We built a hell of an organization and decided to blow it up internally."

Sheehan credits Fritts for a remarkable track record. Since Fritts became president 22 years ago, NAB's coffers climbed from $1.5 million to $80 million. He can claim a string of legislative victories, too—including cable must-carry, strong satellite carriage rights, and fending off claims to broadcasters' spectrum by other telecom businesses.

Sheehan points to the fight with networks, which led the big TV networks to exit NAB one by one as a source of lost clout that needs to be regained. The last to leave was ABC, which bolted last summer when a group of network affiliates pushed NAB to lobby for a rollback of the FCC's recently raised cap on TV station ownership.

"We are telling Rupert Murdoch and other big media owners we don't want them in our business," Sheehan says. "Now they'll grow into areas like satellite TV that are hostile to broadcasting."

The association has enough internal hostility. Over the course of its convention in Las Vegas, Lombardo repeatedly urged Fritts to step down next month, say industry sources attending the event. Lombardo's demands first became public during a blowup at the opening- night Leadership Dinner in front of members of Congress and FCC staff.

Lombardo calls reports of his angry outburst toward Fritts "absolutely, totally false" but admits having talking about Fritts's future at the NAB show.

When radio board members caught wind of Lombardo's attempt to muscle the president out, they rallied to his cause and started lining up votes for a counter coup that would depose Lombardo from the joint board's helm. Lining up to push him out were KGAS(FM) Carthage, Texas, owner Jerry Hanzen, Regent Communications President William Stakelin, WBEB(FM) Philadelphia President Jerry Lee, Withers Broadcasting owner Russell Withers, and Jackson Radio Works owner Bruce Goldsen.

Only a week after casting the group into turmoil, NAB members who are said be in Lombardo's camp are sounding contrite over the fight and full of praise for Fritts.

"As far as I know there is no issue with Eddie," says Post-Newsweek's Frank. "The issue we have concerning NAB leadership is planning for succession. When do we start? What's the timetable? These are different questions that whether anyone is unhappy with Eddie."

To Fritts's supporters, Frank's explanation sounds like damage control.

Said one broadcast source following the fight, "I don't think those guys correctly assessed the support Eddie has on the radio board."

Related

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.