Rehr Talks Up Broadcasting

We're not sick, we're not tired, and we're not going to take it any more!

That was the message from NAB President David Rehr Wednesday. In a reverse of that famous Peter Finch rail on broadcasting in the film Network, Rehr threw open the window and begun talking up TV and radio.

Rehr, in the job for 10 months, went on the offensive Wednesday, saying broadcasters needed to do a better job of selling their strengths, which are localism, digital, and the power of its programming in the marketplace.

"You might say that we have inadvertently relinquished some of the excitement occurring in broadcasting to our competitors by not being more proactive," he told a National Press Club audience in Washington. "That ends today."

The speech was presaged the day before, when former NAB Joint Board Chairman James Yager said that broadcasters had lost a little of the "magic" they had in Washington and had some rebuilding work to do.

Rehr said the association's top priority in 2007 would be a massive public information campaign--he likened it to a presidential run--on the digital transition. The National Telecommunications & Information Association has been given only $5 million for its education campaign on the transition and has called on a lot of help from the industry.

He said NAB would reach out to third parties, but that he didn't expect The Ad Council to be part of the effort.

Rehr said he thought that the subsidy program for analog-to-digital converter boxes would cost more than than the maximum $1.5 billion that has been allocated by Congress. That's because NAB wants the subsidy for all analog-only sets, not just those in houses without cable that Congress had in mind when it budgeted for the subsidy.

There could well be more money than Congress anticipate. Some private estimates of the money generated by auctions of reclaimed analog spectrum--where the money is coming from--are double and even triple the $6 billion range Congress was estimating, though there is no current provision for boosting the $1.5 billion.

Rehr told the Press Club--and C-SPAN-audience that broadcasters had too long allowed the "misimpression" that cable and satellite were more competitive than they really are, and he was out to change that. "This misconception affects our ability to attract investment, ad dollars, personnel and create momentum in the marketplace," he said.

Among his ammunition: Last season, broadcasters claimed the top 184 most-watched shows on TV in the 18-49 demo, and the top 235 in households. Cable hits like Monk? 1,022; Nip/Tuck, 1,403, and Larry King Live, 1,883.

In a Q&A session after the speech, Rehr weighed in on a number of topics:

He thinks the network news is still viable and even vital, says he has no trouble with advertising targeted to children, says the NAB has no political litmus test for staffers or members, and said he thought broadcasters offered plenty of free time for political speech.

On the hot-button topic of indecency regs, he said he thought the bill that passed Congress, which simply boosted the fines tenfold, was an improvement over the initial reaction to the Janet Jackson reveal [when much stronger legislation was proposed]. He said that he thought there would always be indecency regs, relating them to broadcaster's public interest mandate.

"I don't think broadcasters will ever be free of indecency regulations. It gets back to the public service element that we have as part of our charter."

He suggested it should be part of cable's charter as well, saying that Congress and the FCC should reconsider "whether cable should be covered or not."

He also said that more attention should be paid to actors and performers.

"I think there still needs to be some responsibility placed on the people who are involved in the [indecent] actions themselves," he said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.