Fritts notes net-affiliate rifts in NAB keynote

The schism between the networks and station groups was much in evidence at the opening session of the NAB convention in Las Vegas Monday morning, as NAB President Eddie Fritts complained that rather than fighting other causes, "all of a sudden we are challenging ourselves from within."

Also at the session, MPAA President Jack Valenti gave an eloquent defense of the First Amendment, admiting that that sometimes, defending free speech is tough to do when "you become so irate at what is invading the culture of the community." The NAB also gave its distinguished service award to Catherine Hughes, founder and charperson of Radio One Inc., the nation's largest black-owned radio chain, and its Spirit of Broadcasting Award to the American Women in Radio and Television, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

But at a trade show that may be more interesting for who's not here rather than who is, Fritts' comments were the most newsworthy, if also the most restrained.

Since CBS joined Fox and NBC as the biggest and most notorious ex-members of the trade organization , Fritts has been reticent to comment on the crack between the networks, which favor lifting the 35% ownership cap, and other station groups that want it kept there. Fritts made it plain he wished the networks were still part of the group. He refuted the contention the NAB "umbrella" can no longer act as a shield for networks and station groups, and their diverging needs. Instead, he said, "Frankly, I believe it is our strength, a strength that has given us many victories over the years."

Earlier, referring to the networks and station groups, Fritts told attendees, "Never in our industry's history .have tensions between the two been so high." But he also thanked ABC for hanging with the NAB.. "We value your standing side by side with us, in spite of your disagreement with us on our understanding of the issue of the 35% ownership cap." Fritts said.

Otherwise, Fritts said the NAB expects to "benefit from a lighter regulatory touch" with an FCC led by Michael Powell but said "some issues will be more difficult."

Foremost among them, he said, is the tough conversion of broadcasting from analog to digital. "The very future of braodcasting rests on successful completion of this transition," Fritts said. He suggested that government intervention is necessary, but stressed Washington's assistance should be "minimal."

He once again called for cable "gatekeepers" to carry digital channels as well as analog signals during the transition; called on TV manufacturers to put DTV tuners in every new set; and for the the industry to solve the DTV/cable interoperatability woes.

In his speech, Valenti said "I do not quarrel with the passionate sincerity of some members of Congress and others who are vexed over what they judge to be a breakdown in the civic compact which governs the daily conduct of citizens." Valenti said the onslaught of media in what he calledthe "Millennium of Communications" is "bound to produce both the tawdry and the superior" but he urged that rather than restrict free speech through law, schools, churches and parents must instill values that protect themselves from objectionable material.
- P.J. Bednarski