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May 8

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5/8/2009 12:32 PM  RssIcon

DeborahMcAdamsThere could not be a worse imaginable time for the broadcast lobby to lose a chief executive. The final phase of the digital transition is around the corner. Something like 800 TV stations will simultaneously end analog broadcasting. The Supreme Court is cracking down on content. The FCC is ratcheting up public interest requirements. Silicon Valley giants are wrenching away broadcast signal buffer space and the cable lobbies are preparing for war over the retransmission fees that are currently keeping the industry from going entirely down the tubes.

David Rehr’s sudden exit from the NAB this week has a lot of people asking what in the world is going on over there. Rehr was certainly cut from some straight lace, unlike the smooth and smiling former CEO Mr. Fritts. But Rehr was hired in part because he was not the old-style backroom lobbyist that was Eddie Fritts, and because he wasn’t already entrenched with some faction of the industry as the other finalists were.

Rehr certainly had his own way of doing things. Where Fritts was always handy with an insider anecdote, Rehr was all business and bullet points. All “government-sanctioned monopolies” and “industry advocate,” and all with a straight face while broadcasters arguably clung to dependence on carriers rather than creating opportunities through the thing that is free high-definition TV. To this day, people ask me what went wrong there, and to this day, I don’t know why broadcasters didn’t steal market share from cable and satellite with a little cooperative campaigning.

Was it too hard to turn up the power on transmitters? Please. I’ve been watching digital-only television with an antenna for more than three years. Full power, my petunia patch. Several times, in the Washington, D.C. market where I used to live and here in Los Angeles, digital feeds disappear for weeks with no other reasonable explanation than powering down the transmitter, and yes, Virginia, I know how to do a channel scan.

I’ve heard tell that cable and satellite companies leveled various scare tactics to keep broadcasters from banding together and marketing free TV. Apparently, they prefer paying retransmission fees. Ahem.

There are undoubtedly many hidden elements in the story of how broadcast industry ended up leaderless in the days before the biggest moment in its history. The irony that it’s supposed to be one of the torch-bearers of the First Amendment is not lost on some of us trying to unravel the mystery. Aside from that, Rehr’s sudden exit makes the entire industry look impetuous, fractured and disorganized.

He may not have had a ton of home runs as the head of the NAB, but he did a pretty fair job considering what he had to work with. I, for one, wish Mr. Rehr the very best of luck. I wish it for this industry as well. It has never been in greater need of such fortunes.

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