Fritts Era to End

February 18, 2005
After 23 years, Eddie Fritts is ready to call it quits. The president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters announced his own succession search this week.

"I wanted to time this announcement to best facilitate the search committee's effort," he said.

Fritts, who turns 64 this month, saw the NAB through a number of hard-fought and somewhat circular battles. He was there when broadcasters won must-carry rights in the 1992 Cable Act, and then again when they lost digital must-carry rights earlier this month. He worked the Hill like a Fuller Brush man during the crafting of the 1996 Telecom Act, which lengthened broadcast license renewal terms from three to eight years. Now, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he intends to introduce a bill to roll license renewal back to three-year intervals. Fritts was around when the 38-year-old Fairness Doctrine got mowed down during the Reagan Administration; several public interest groups have recently lobbied for its resurrection.

Fritts told "The Washington Post" that he expects his successor to be named within eight months. He also told the Post that he's off to consult, join a large political firm or possibly become a broadcaster again. Fritts was a broadcaster in Mississippi before becoming NAB chief in 1982. Described as "charming" by those with whom he's negotiated, Fritts quietly built the lobby from a bit of a backwater to a powerhouse. A quintessential example of the Fritts effect occurred last fall. While lawmakers vociferously pushed legislation for a hard analog shut-off date, it was deftly derailed by a last-minute amendment, courtesy of a broadcast-friendly senator.

Fritts' contract runs through April 2006, after which he will continue to consult for the NAB. Philip Lombardo, NAB joint board chairman and CEO of Citadel Communications, along with David Kennedy, president and CEO of Susquehanna Media Company and immediate past joint board chair, will co-chair a search committee, which will begin by engaging an executive search firm. The assignment will involve finding an adept and knowledgeable lobbyist willing to work in the $1 million-a-year range--not enough to lure former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin, who turned down the Motion Picture Association of America in favor of a bigger check from the pharmaceutical industry.

The future head of the NAB will also have the internal strife of the organization to contend with, as did Fritts when the networks and their affiliates caused a schism that led to the defection of the Big Four. That person will also have to cope with an FCC armed with half-million-dollar indecency fines, if current House legislation lives to see daylight.

Among those whose names are surfacing as the next possible chief of the NAB, Marty Franks, executive vice president of CBS Television, has been mentioned by Broadcasting and Cable and Warren News. However, recent high-level turnovers went to personas ignotus, such as Kyle McSlarrow, the incoming chief of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Also, Dan Glickman, while not exactly an unknown as the former Secretary of Agriculture, was certainly a surprise replacement for Jack Valenti, long-time chief of the MPAA.

Several of Fritts' Beltway associates praised his tenure and performance as chief of the broadcast lobby, including Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who said it was "a privilege" to have worked with Fritts during his 20 years in Congress.

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