Flip Flop Flip

Critics and allies alike were roasting the National Association of Broadcasters after the trade group declared that its on-again/off-again support for legislation that would reinstate the cap on national TV ownership was on again.

"I'm not sure anyone is listening to the NAB right now," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). "They started this train down the track, but they're not the engineers anymore, and anything can happen when you lose control."

Tauzin opposes the fast-growing effort to reinstate the 35% cap on TV-household reach, which the FCC lifted to 45% in June, but has long been on good terms with the industry's largest trade group.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain last week accused the NAB of "rank hypocrisy" for fighting against a higher ownership cap—the higher cap would primarily benefit the broadcast networks—while fighting for deregulation that helps most of NAB's TV members. "I have never been a fan of the NAB," said McCain, who remains angered by broadcasters' fight against mandated free airtime for federal candidates, an issue near and dear to him.

Despite not winning any friends for its fair-weather support of the bill, association chief Eddie Fritts last week wouldn't rule out another course change before the legislative fight is over.

One change already was a vote by the NAB joint board last week. With momentum in Congress seemingly going their way, members agreed to resume support for a House appropriations bill that would reinstate the 35% cap.

The vote came only 17 days after NAB President Eddie Fritts announced that the group would fight the legislation it had originally backed for fear that other provisions the group opposes would be tacked on. That fear diminished when the House approved a clean 35% bill and soundly defeated efforts to revive restrictions on newspaper crossownership and TV duopolies.

Given both House and Senate sentiment for additional restrictions, Fritts says leaders of the cap-rollback effort generated impressive obedience in defeating the extra measures. "I was surprised lawmakers showed as much discipline as they did."

But the NAB is in a quandary. Legislation to reverse the FCC's June 2 decision to lift the cap is moving through Congress on at least three different tracks. If the group is lucky, it will get exactly what it wants: a "clean" piece of legislation that retains the 35% cap and prevents the networks from growing and putting NAB's network affiliates at a competitive disadvantage. But the fear, though lessened, is not gone. Lawmakers could still add measures that broadcasters oppose, including a ban on local broadcast/newspaper crossownership and tighter restrictions on TV duopolies. Even new public-interest obligations are in play.

Fritts needs more lawmakers like Conrad Burns, the former broadcaster-turned Montana senator. Burns held NAB blameless for its back-and-forth on the bill. "We're changing our minds up here all the time," he said, waving off concern. "I've supported legislation before and then later had my legs cut out from under me."

The decision to resume fighting for the 35% cap came the same day Fritts named acting chief lobbyist John Orlando to the post permanently (see below).

Fritts also won unanimously the board's vote of confidence, despite dissension over the 35% battle. One segment of NAB members, led by members who are also leaders of the National Affiliated Stations Alliance, is determined to keep the cap low. Other members, such as Tribune Co., are worried that the battle will jeopardize their most cherished gain: permission to own more TV/newspaper combos.

McCain's willingness to push forward with legislation that goes well beyond the 35% "bears out Eddie's foreboding" of three weeks ago, said Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan.

Despite still having reservations about what will be happen when the Senate takes up its appropriations bill in September, Fritts thinks the previous opposition did the trick. "I think we helped the process along and in the final analysis got the best result."