Fritts to Leave NAB

The National Association of Broadcasters is looking for new leadership after longtime president Edward Fritts told the group’s board Wednesday that he intends to step down at some point in the months ahead, although no specific date was given.

Fritts, 63, became the NAB’s president in 1982 and produced a string of legislative and regulatory victories, including mandatory cable carriage in 1992 and radio deregulation in 1996.

But in recent years, the NAB’s political strength was sapped by internal divisions, particularly when the independent affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox decided to wage war against their networks, causing the “Big Four” to march out of an organization considered one of the most powerful in Washington, D.C.

Fritts has always lamented the network-affiliate split, mainly because a divided industry provided sustenance to opponents and critics in crucial political battles.

In a statement, Fritts did not directly refer to network-affiliate problems, although he did tell the board “that NAB's most important accomplishments have been the result of an industry that speaks with a single, unified voice.”

At last week’s Federal Communications Commission meeting, a united cable industry won the battle regarding multicast must-carry over divided TV stations. While the NAB wanted to force cable to carry all free multicast digital-TV services, and not just one channel, the corporate parents of CBS and Fox opposed expansion of mandatory cable-carriage rights.

In another sign of division, some NAB members wanted the FCC to postpone the Feb. 10 vote, but Paxson Communications Corp., for example, actually went to court to force the commission to decide the issue within 30 days.

In 2003, the network affiliates pressed the FCC to broadly deregulate TV-station ownership in local markets but at the same time urged the agency to oppose allowing the networks to own stations that can reach more than 35% of TV households nationally.

Fritts -- who owned a Mississippi radio-station group before taking the NAB's top post -- has a contract that runs until April 2006 and a consulting deal after the pact expires. The NAB statement did not provide a specific departure date for Fritts.

The trade group announced that its joint board chairman, Philip Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Broadcasting Corp., and immediate past joint board chair David Kennedy, CEO of Susquehanna Media Co., would lead a search committee and hire an executive-search firm to assist in finding Fritts’ successor.

Published reports have mentioned Martin Franks, executive vice president of CBS Television, as a leading candidate for the NAB job. But a broadcasting-industry source said Franks would probably have trouble because he's worked for a major network and because he’s a Democrat at a time when many top D.C. trade-group posts are going to Republicans.

"Eddie Fritts will be a tough act to follow," Kennedy said. "His insight, vision and tireless work on behalf of broadcasters [have] served us extraordinarily well during his entire tenure. But I'm confident that the search-committee process will identify the right person to lead NAB into the future."

Fritts’ decision to leave has been rumored for many months, starting last April at the NAB’s Las Vegas convention, when the major TV affiliates began to pressure him to resign, apparently over lobbying goals and tactics.

The NAB’s trade show has been extremely profitable, leaving the association with $80 million in the bank.

But use of the kitty also split the group. While radio stations wanted to spend the money on common goals, TV affiliates viewed it as a war chest to lobby and litigate against the networks.