It's not often that you find a major trade association publicly eating crow for its actions, but the NAB's changing position on ownership caps has resulted in a full plate special for the lobbying group.
The NAB has been lobbying hard against the FCC's recent actions to increase the station ownership caps. The new caps were raised to 45 percent from 35 percent and would allow cross-ownership between newspapers and TV stations in some markets. The FCC's action was generally greeted as good news by large stations and groups, and bad news by small stations. Congress, knowing that there's an election just a year away, saw the split FCC action as too good a target to pass up and used the opportunity to collectively pound their chests for more media “diversity.” It was the perfect opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to pour further scorn on those greedy media moguls.
Many in the industry were surprised (okay, I was surprised) at NAB's initial position against raising the caps. After all, the rest of us knew that major broadcasters were interested in a round of M&As. But when ABC dropped its NAB membership, maybe Eddie and the guys saw this as the perfect chance to kick sand in the face of Michael Eisner and the other networks.
Shortly after the FCC's action, we found the NAB's president, Eddie Fritts and friends wandering the halls of Congress expressing sympathy and support for those legislators wanting to invalidate the FCC's actions. Much of the public posturing seemed positioned under that wonderful banner called diversity. To read the comments, you'd have thought that media diversity was the miracle pill for broadcasting's ills.
But at the last minute, NAB changed positions. Now it supports the higher ownership caps. The organization blamed the position change on “amendments” made in the Senate Commerce committee. NAB said that it still wanted a 35 percent ownership cap, but that it was “politically and legislatively infeasible.” Let's see, does this mean you want the cap or you don't want the cap? One can only wonder what damage the NAB's blunder has done to broadcasting's image on the Hill.
As I said last month, station ownership caps need to be raised, and any effort to prevent that is shortsighted and anti-capitalistic. Broadcasters need the freedom to be able to sell, buy and merge, just like other companies. You can demand all the media “diversity” you want, but unless broadcasters are allowed to trade facilities as needed to financially succeed, everyone — viewers, investors and broadcasters — will lose.
The problem now is that our industry's primary lobbyist, NAB, is having to publicly eat crow because of its ill-thought decision to try and undo what was the correct FCC decision. Alliances have been broken, trust damaged and friends alienated. Big mistake guys. This is going to hurt all of us in both the short and long run. Enjoy that crow Eddie. Unfortunately, the indigestion you'll get will be with all of us for a long time.