Executive Profile: In The Eye Of The Storm

Eddie Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, says his organization will always be there for the little guy.

DigitalTV: In your opinion, what's the biggest challenge facing broadcasters today?

Fritts: One person's challenge is another's opportunity. Certainly the transition from analog to digitalÑin both radio and televisionÑpresents broadcasters with a whole range of challenges and opportunities. Our greatest challenge on the digital television front is creating consumer awareness of the technology. Up to this point, our industry's focus has been on getting stations on the air. We now have reached a critical mass where more than 250 stations have made the transition. Now the challenge is to educate viewers on the benefits of the technology. That's why we've joined the Consumer Electronics Association on a DTV awareness campaign. We believe strongly that once consumers see digital and HDTV, they will want it. Audience fragmentation is another ongoing issue for broadcasters, but I continue to believe that the most successful stations will be those that remain invested in the local community and committed to localism. That's our franchise and ours alone.

DigitalTV: How is the NAB ensuring that all of its members are represented?

Fritts: Virtually every segment of our industry is represented by the NAB board of directors, which is comprised of executives of small and large market radio and TV stations, networks, group operators, and standalone owners. We have tremendous diversity on the board, and no important decisions are made by NAB without broad input from it. We vet the issues, come to a consensus, and move forward.

DigitalTV: Is digital cable must-carry the main priority for the NAB? What about satellite providers?

Fritts: Cable DTV carriage of local TV stations is certainly a major priority of NAB. It's tough to single out the Ômain' priority, since there are so many. Extending satellite Ôlocal-to-local' carriage to every market and every TV station in America is a huge priority of NAB. Preventing Congress from further discounting rates for political advertising is a priority. Blocking the EchoStar merger with DirecTV is a priority. Preserving the 35 percent TV ownership cap is a priority. There's no end to Ôpriority' issues. Fortunately, we are strong and deep enough as an association to deal effectively with a plethora of issues on a continuing basis.

DigitalTV: Would you agree that since most Americans get their TV via cable today that this will continue in the future with digital TV?

Fritts: Distribution platforms are important, but people watch programs, not platforms. We broadcasters want to make sure that our rich blend of local and national programming is available to American consumers regardless of the platform.

DigitalTV: How successful have you been in convincing the consumer electronics industry to build affordable sets with cable connectivity?

Fritts: DTV set prices are coming down. As for cable connectivity, that's an issue between CEA and NCTA [National Cable and Telecommunications Association]. It's just one of the pieces to [sic] the DTV puzzle that needs to be resolved quickly. Government has got to play a role if the DTV transition is to succeed. Its role is to ensure that consumers have the widest selection of local programming available. Of all the players in the DTV transition, only broadcasters face a mandated timetable. It's now time for government to hold cable and the set makers equally accountable in the DTV transition.

DigitalTV: It looks as though most commercial stations will not be on the air with a digital signal by May 1 of this year. Will this reflect negatively on the industry, in terms of the public?

Fritts: Those who look at the DTV transition objectively will acknowledge that broadcasters have done a remarkable job getting to this point. We're proud of our efforts; hundreds of millions have been spent, and we now have over 250 DTV stations on the air. Three out of four homes are now in markets that are covered by at least one DTV signal. Most of the major market stations will be DTV-ready by May. Most of those that don't meet the deadline will be on the air within the next year. We've got more HDTV programming from the broadcast networks than ever before. There's a gravitational pull toward digital that is inevitable and broadcasters are leading the way.

DigitalTV: President Bush wants to tax broadcasters for use of the analog spectrum if they don't give it back by 2006. Is this fair to those broadcasters that are honestly trying hard to comply with the FCC's mandate?

Fritts: Absolutely not, and we think Congress understands that. This spectrum tax idea is nothing newÑit's been part of every budget submitted by the White House for a number of years. What the White House fails to acknowledge with this proposal is that broadcasters are the only participants in the DTV transition making real progress.

DigitalTV: Do you think Congress will continue to ask broadcasters to broadcast HDTV, even though it is not mandated by the FCC?

Fritts: You're correct. HDTV is not mandated by the FCC, and in fact, the FCC specifically rejected a minimum HDTV mandate that was proposed by the networks. Nevertheless, there is a perception that broadcasters were loaned digital spectrum for the express intent of doing HDTV. The NAB is supportive of the efforts of those networks that have made a commitment to HDTV. CBS and ABC deserve special credit, and NBC has stepped up with its Olympic coverage. We'd like to see all of the networks show a commitment to HDTV.

DigitalTV: You've said that the technical debate regarding 8-VSB versus COFDM modulation is over and that engineers will improve the ATSC standard as we go forward with the transition. What if over-the-air reception continues to be a problem using the ATSC standard?

Fritts: The debate is over. The industry is united behind 8-VSB. You will see continued enhancements of 8-VSB technology that will correct whatever deficiencies exist.

DigitalTV: How can a single-channel company compete with the existing (and constantly improving) multichannel digital services of cable and satellite? What's the compelling reason that a consumer would choose HDTV over 100-plus channels of standard definition digital programs?

Fritts: Two reasons: better pictures and better sound. If you see a sporting event in HDTV, you'll never want to watch it any other way.

DigitalTV: Will the NAB ever consider expanding its reach to include cable TV and satellite broadcasters among its membership? What about media companies that distribute programs via the Internet or over phone lines?

Fritts: Our association represents the interests of free, over-the-air broadcasters. I don't foresee that changing anytime soon.

DigitalTV: Are you concerned about consolidation among station ownership? What can be done to preserve localization?

Fritts: Consolidation is occurring in every industry, and certainly our industry is not immune. We strongly support retaining the 35 percent television ownership cap, because we think this is a rule that promotes localism and diversity.

DigitalTV: Can free, over-the-air broadcasting survive in the future?

Fritts: The answer is yes. This is a great business and the opportunities will be tremendous once the transition to digital is completed. So, as long as stations maintain their focus on localism, broadcasters will not only survive, they will thrive.n Kevin Mortimer is a contributing writer for DigitalTV.

National Association of Broadcasters