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Will Franks Head NAB?

After surviving a bitter contract dispute last year with National Association of Broadcasters Chairman Phil Lombardo, President Eddie Fritts is planning to retire from the trade group. He is widely expected to announce his departure at the NAB's annual convention in Las Vegas in April, a year before his current term expires.

Fritts, 63, has told confidants he no longer wants to contend with divisions between the group's TV and radio membership. “Eddie is interested in an orderly transition and wants to give the board ample time to prepare,” says a source close to Fritts. Fritts and other NAB officials declined comment.

Lobbyists for several TV-station groups say the leading candidate to succeed him is CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks, a Washington veteran who currently heads the network's digital-TV operations, programming standards and practices, and other special projects for parent company Viacom. Franks' current duties keep him on top of the most critical and politically controversial issues that broadcasters grapple with, including the switch to digital TV and the FCC's indecency crackdown.

Franks is respected among the various factions within NAB. His strong suit: He is seen as a likely peacemaker who could lure CBS and the other major networks back to the trade group. The networks dropped their membership when non-network station groups fought to retain ownership caps that prevent the networks from buying more stations. Owners of network affiliates fear the Big Four will gain too much leverage over affiliation contracts if they are allowed to grow unchecked. “The next chairman has got to reunite the industry,” says another station-group official.

Political expertise

Supporters believe Franks' 15 years of experience as a Capitol Hill staffer and Democratic campaign organizer would help NAB maintain its successful legislative track record. Before joining CBS in 1988, Franks worked for Democratic House and Senate Campaign Committees, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.).

But the appointment of Franks, a Democrat, is not a sure thing. NAB would risk angering GOP officials by overlooking Republicans who might covet the $1 million-a-year job. Since President Bush's first term, Washington trade groups have been pressured to put Republicans at their head.

Fritts has led the broadcast trade group for more than 20 years and steered it though key changes in the TV and radio business, including competition from cable and satellite operators. Under his leadership, the broadcast industry won critical lobbying victories. In particular, it secured the right of stations to demand that cable operators carry all digital channels in a market.

As Fritts walks out the door, the group is on the verge of losing key FCC decisions, including a bid to expand cable carriage rights for DTV. The past five years also have been marred by deep divisions within the industry, including the exodus of the major networks, which quit the NAB in anger over its opposition to raising federal caps on their audience reach.