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NAB topper defends org’s dereg reversal

Fritts' aboutface leaves solons irate

WASHINGTON — Struggling to rein in an eruption of criticism, National Assn. of Broadcasters topper Edward Fritts denied Thursday that a decision to oppose all legislation aimed at gutting major components of the FCC media ownership rewrite constituted a 180 degree policy reversal.

Fritts and the NAB started informing lawmakers Wednesday of its decision to oppose all bills on Capitol Hill aimed at restoring the 35% cap on broadcasters’ household reach. The news shocked several influential lawmakers in both Houses of Congress, since the NAB had convinced them to sponsor rollback bills when it appeared the Federal Communications Commission would raise the cap to 45%, as it did June 2.

Fritts called reporters to NAB headquarters in Washington Thursday to do a little damage control. Instead of a role reversal, Fritts maintained the NAB had yanked its support because the Senate Commerce Committee had loaded the 35% rollback legislation with numerous amendments that he argued would do serious damage to the industry.

“Never before has the broadcast industry had a list of challenges on the table of this magnitude,” he told reporters Thursday.

Earlier this week, after a heated Senate hearing on radio ownership concentration, a majority of the NAB board grew increasingly concerned that the controversy over the FCC’s new media ownership regs had stirred up opposition and was motivating lawmakers to add far too many amendments to the rollback bill. The board voted Tuesday to oppose any form of rollback legislation — even if it addressed just the 35% cap.

Some of NAB’s most influential members were alarmed about a measure to reinstate the ban on one company owning a major newspaper and broadcast station in the same market and another that would limit the number of radio stations one company could own in smaller markets. Latter would force some companies, such as Clear Channel, to sell off stations to comply with the new law.

At the briefing for reporters Thursday, Fritts handed out a statement thanking the lawmakers for championing their cause, even though the NAB had withdrawn its support.

“We remain grateful to Congressmen (Richard) Burr (R-N.C.) and (John) Dingell (D-Mich.) and Senators (Ted) Stevens (R-Alaska) and (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.) and other members of Congress for their longstanding support of free, local over-the-air broadcasters,” he said.

But the NAB’s decision to abandon the legislation infuriated several lawmakers who had worked hard to generate support for the measure.

“This is the very bill they’ve been pushing all along,” one knowledgeable Senate aide said. “In such a closely divided Senate, there’s no way to guarantee that no amendments are added to the bill, and the NAB should know that.”

“The NAB has seriously weakened its reputation and effectiveness on Capitol Hill by pulling this,” another Senate aide added.

The aides also said the NAB’s about-face would not deter or hamper the effort to pass the rollback bills.

The move also reinforced opinions in Washington that Clear Channel, with its 1,200 radio stations nationwide, exercises too much influence within the NAB.

At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), referred to the NAB as “a wholly owned subsidiary of Clear Channel.”

When asked about the remark, Fritts took pains to demonstrate the NAB’s independence from the radio behemoth, stressing that the org operates by democratic process and that no one at the NAB had discussed its decision to pull its support for the bill with anyone at Clear Channel in the past two weeks

The NAB’s longtime support of a 35% cap has split the broadcast industry. All four major nets left the NAB — Disney/ABC just last month — over the trade group’s continued support of maintaining the status quo when it comes to the cap.

In the last month, the four major nets have talked about forming their own trade group or alliance. Indeed, the nets’ general managers plan to gather in Washington next week to launch a full-scale assault on the legislation and discuss a continuing partnership, industry sources confirmed.

Some Capitol Hill aides suggested the NAB’s dramatic about-face was an attempt to convince the nets to rejoin the fold. But Fritts denied that conjecture Thursday.

“There was no overture to the networks,” he insisted. “There was no quid pro quo in any way, shape or fashion.”

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