Bigger Is Much Better

One of the most tangible legacies of Eddie Fritts will be on display next month in Las Vegas, when 100,000 people from around the world will gather for the NAB's annual convention, now accurately billed as the World's Largest Electronic Media Show.

The convention draws more than five times as many people and three times as many exhibitors as it did when Fritts arrived at the NAB 23 years ago. Perhaps most important, it has become the financial engine of NAB, throwing off $15 million to $20 million in net profit each year. That money keeps dues low and the gears of NAB's lobbying operation well greased.

The convention itself has become a lobbying tool. Over the years, Fritts has brought scores of lawmakers, Hill staffers and FCC officials to Las Vegas to meet with media moguls and industry executives to see firsthand the vast and alluring technological future of television and radio.

And the officials were duly impressed, says John Abel, whom Fritts hired in 1983 to grow the convention. “They'd see this big show and think, 'Don't mess with these guys. They've got a lot of money.'” (Abel left NAB in 1995 and is currently SVP of membership, marketing and business development at the United States Telecom Association.)

Now the NAB Show is, as the billing says, home to electronic media in all its forms. Everybody with hardware or software that creates, captures, manipulates, stores or transmits video or audio is on the sprawling exhibit floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center—or ought to be. Buyers include broadcasters, cable operators and networks, news outlets, corporate video producers, and production houses.

In fact, cable fueled much of the NAB convention's growth in the 1980s. But the show took its big leap forward in 1992 with the establishment of Multimedia World, a show-within-a-show that embraced the convergence of computers, along with video and audio. “Silicon Valley types started coming,” Abel says.

If much was gained by expanding the show, something was lost as well. Broadcasters represent only a fraction of attendees. The clubby atmosphere of the 1970s and early 1980s has disappeared. Most station executives have stopped going, even though the NAB works hard to put together a compelling conference for them.

But Fritts made sure convention planners knew the organization's priorities. “Whenever a decision came down to politics or business, Eddie came down on the side of business,” says Abel. “If it meant good business for the NAB, he would wade through the politics.”

The NAB is an international attraction. Last year, more than 22,000 came from overseas. “The international component is all gravy,” Abel says, but, for some of the exhibitors, it is also milk and honey.

“I remember an exhibitor complaining about traffic one year,” Abel recalls. “But by the end of the show, they had made a $90 million sale to a Mexican broadcaster.”