The slogan for this year's National Association of Broadcasters convention is “Your Future Starts Here.” The sad fact is, for much of the communications industry, including cable and satellite providers, the future started a long time ago, while broadcasters were busy fighting to stop them. Now the future truly is here, and broadcasters are way over there. The business seems clumsy and slow, and about as futuristic as a Buick Roadmaster.
Eddie Fritts, the able leader of NAB for 23 years, will be gone by fall. He deserves broadcasters' applause for what he did accomplish, but he leaves broadcasters with a full plate of concerns. The NAB needs a new strong leader to finesse Washington legislation. Broadcasters also need to find executives in their front offices who will step up to lead, with imagination and innovation and integrity. Broadcasting needs a bold new, coherent direction. Its problems are many.
As noted in our listing of the Top 25 Station Groups (page 36), station trading has ground to a halt, pending court decisions about the scope of deregulating the industry. Unless pushed, the issues won't be resolved soon. That makes owning a television station akin to owning beachfront property—next door to a chemical plant.
Cable channels now get more than half of all the viewers. And cable networks are growing, while broadcast networks, with rare exceptions, haven't figured out how to be mass distributors in what has rapidly become a TV-niche world.
On the station level, after a decade-long fight for digital spectrum, broadcasters have been told by the FCC that they aren't entitled to digital must-carry on cable systems. Unless stations can get that done by getting Congress or the FCC to reconsider, that new revenue stream is a dead issue.
Emboldened by breast-beating critics of media consolidation and critics of breast-baring media content, Congress is pushing for more-concrete regulations for public-affairs programming.
The new chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, has been on the wrong side of the content-regulation issue, and we expect it's a pulpit he won't be leaving soon. Extolling moral virtues makes for good politics, as this White House has learned. Beating up broadcasters—actually, the tamest of the media—still plays well with voters. The NAB rarely has been forceful on First Amendment issues. Content regulation, if it comes, is sad recognition of earlier battles not fought well enough.
Meanwhile, new technology has created a shopping mall of places for consumers to go for content. While broadcast television figures out its future, consumers are creating their own diversions on the Internet, with their TiVo, and with everything from Netflix to PlayStation. Even Nielsen's new local people meters suggest that fewer viewers are watching broadcast television.
Whomever the NAB chooses as its next leader must not only sell the relevance of free over-the-air broadcasting to Washington but also give broadcasters a reason to believe in that vision themselves. But the NAB can't do it alone. The strength of broadcasting is in its localism. General managers, news directors and even engineers must recognize that, in fact, the future really is here and it's time to get with it.