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Leaving Las Vegas

For different reasons, ABC, CBS and NBC are either cutting back or withdrawing entirely from the National Association of Broadcasters convention next week. And some vendors are cutting back, as well.

NBC is boycotting the convention completely and canceled the affiliates meeting that had been scheduled in Las Vegas, as well as an engineers meeting to be held the same day (April 23). The network cited what it said was the NAB's recent decision to support the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance in its filing last month to the Federal Communications Commission. That's the station-sponsored tirade against the networks that argues against lifting the 35% ownership cap. Networks want the cap raised to at least 50%. NASA also asked the FCC to investigate what it called network abuses of affiliates' contracts and commission rules.

ABC said it was canceling its annual affiliates engineering meeting due to lack of interest. The network said it polled its affiliates and determined that stations were sending far fewer engineers to the show this year than last. The network would not provide specific numbers but concluded that the interest level this year didn't justify the cost of hosting the meeting. The network will, however, send its usual contingent of staffers to the convention, led by Preston Davis, president of operations and engineering at ABC.

CBS and Fox both said they would meet with their affiliate engineers as scheduled.

But CBS did say it was sending fewer people—from both the TV and radio sides—than last year. And CBS is also blowing off the panel session/conference side of the show, like NBC, as a result of NAB's recent reiteration of its support for the current ownership cap. Two weeks ago, CBS became the third network to resign from NAB over the TV ownership rules. NBC and Fox quit last year.

A CBS official said the network still found value in working the convention floor and talking with vendors and others that come to the show to explore the latest technology. "But we're not going to eat their shrimp," or participate in any of the panel sessions on the conference side of the convention, he said.

The Grass Valley Group said it was sending fewer people to the convention. "As a sign of the times, we've cut down on the number of people we're sending," says Tim Thorsteinson, president, Grass Valley Group. "Cutting back on nonessential travel is always on the list of things to cut when you're trying to save money."

But it was NBC's wholesale boycott of the convention (with the exception of a handful of staffers from its owned TV-stations division) that captured the most attention last week.

Jack Sander, president of Belo Television and chairman of the NBC affiliate board of governors, was disappointed with the network's decision and said it was "disingenuous" of NBC to cancel the meeting and blame it on NAB. "They didn't have to register with the NAB to hold the affiliates meeting," or the engineering breakfast, he said. And the NAB's support of the current ownership rules is not a new issue, he noted. (The NAB had a terse no comment to NBC's decision.)

Sander said that "both sides worked hard" to set up the affiliates meeting, which was to replace the annual spring gathering that NBC canceled just six weeks ago. "There were an awful lot of general managers who were not going to go to the NAB but decided to go because of this meeting," he said.

But the affiliates will meet at NAB without the network, said Sander. The board was to meet late last week to set the agenda.

Equipment vendors didn't react strongly to NBC's move. "It's disappointing," said Mark Simpson, president and CEO of Triveni Digital, a datacasting-systems provider. But, he added, "the effect on our company will be marginal as we meet with network people from all the networks throughout the year, not just at NAB."

NBC offered an olive branch last week. It told affiliates that previously announced regional meetings would go forward as planned. And a spokesman stressed that the network still wants a "relationship" with its affiliates: "we expect to go down a path of mutual benefit with them," he said. Just not in Vegas.