Of Big Four, only ABC remains a member

HOLLYWOOD — When the National Assn. of Broadcasters descends on the Las Vegas desert for its annual confab April 21-26, it will be sans three major nets for the first time in the trade org’s long and influential life.

CBS got a quickie divorce from NAB earlier this month, leaving ABC the only one of the Big Four to remain a member. Fox left in 1999 and NBC last year.

All three ankled in protest of NAB’s allegiance to affils and station groups on a crucial ownership cap blocking the nets from further expansion.

So far, no formal panel has been skedded at the confab to grapple with the net exits — or what the departures mean for the trade org.

Informally, the defections from NAB are likely to color conversations throughout the four-day event.

Caught in the cross-fire of the net-affil war of 2001 is NAB prexy-CEO Eddie Fritts, who will give a state-of-the-industry speech on April 23. To date, Fritts has not commented on the departures or on the difficulties they pose for him.

Rubbing salt in the wound, NBC announced on April 10 it will boycott NAB 2001. No Peacock execs will attend and a peripheral affil meeting and engineers’ breakfast have been canceled. There will be some NBC O&O stations repped.

It’s a far cry from the decades during which Fritts proudly paraded the nets at the annual meeting, one of the largest trade events around. Fritts was tapped to head the org in 1982.

Still, NAB execs point out that its membership includes more than 7,000 TV and radio stations — hardly a number to sneeze at.

Financialy, the NAB is still on solid ground. In general, dues are based on size of station and market.

But the divide between nets and local TV stations can’t be good for business, whether in Las Vegas or back in Washington. The NAB has for years been one of the most effective lobbying orgs in the Capitol.

A net exec says membership in the org became untenablewhen NAB broke its unwritten neutrality rule and decided to back station groups and affils on the question of ownership caps.

The Federal Communications Commission-mandated cap currently prohibits a broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national audience, but CBS, Fox and NBC have been furiously trying to get the courts to raise the ceiling.

“If the NAB continues to fight these intramural battles, then no thank you to returning,” the network exec says.

The delegates to the NAB will be hard-pressed to spot any difference in terms of the size and scope of the 2001 edition over previous years.

This go around, more than 115,000 people will jam the Strip as they shuttle from various hotels to two different convention sites.

As always, scores of technical exhibits will lure station owners to try out the latest gadgets and gizmos.

Numerous panels on policy questions are scheduled throughout the week, including a presentation by new FCC chair Michael Powell.

On April 23, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech.

Some of the issues expected to be formally addressed throughout the six-day confab include:

  • The transition to digital TV.

  • The campaign finance reform bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate. The legislation orders broadcasters to offer across-the-board discounts to candidates buying TV ad time.

  • Copyright protection in the digital age.
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