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New NAB President David Rehr talks with TV Technology

David Rehr wasn't three days at the helm of the NAB when he papered Capitol Hill in the name of broadcast localism. He wasted no time in getting out there--pretty much the précis of the man. His strategy is all offense, yet he's coming into an industry under attack from myriad fronts, in an environment where the notion of getting television service for free over the air is considered almost antediluvian. (While every other "wireless" service is held up as the crowning achievement of 21st century communications technology.)

(click thumbnail)NAB chief David Rehr
In a day filled with a parade of reporters grilling him one after another, Rehr squeezed in some time with TV Techno-logy Managing Editor Deborah D. McAdams, to discuss tel-coTV, multicast must-carry, the NAB's relationship with TV equipment manufacturers, and raising awareness about over-the-air television.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You weighed in on the video franchising docket. How do you envision the broadcast/telcoTV relationship?

REHR: I think the more distribution channels into people's homes, the better it is for broadcasters... I know in some states, rural telephone cooperatives want to get in the business; rural electric companies in some states want to get into the business. I think the more competition there is for getting programs to people--is good for broadcasters.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Would additional distribution methods degrade the over-the-air model?

REHR: No, because I think the emerging digital television technology will demonstrate that over-the-air in many places offers the best, most pristine signals possible. So what we want to try to do is use digital television as an impetus to get more people to either stay with or go to free, over-the-air service.

We also recognize that some people will choose a pay distribution service. And we know that satellite pays broadcasters. We know that the telcos will pay broadcasters. We know that small cable pays broadcasters!

We just need to break the dam on the big cable companies.

One thing that I think that really benefits broadcasters is that none of the distribution providers will ever be as good at content. Broadcasters are really good at content, particularly local content, and that makes [broadcasting] extremely valuable. So that was kind of the impetus for talking about franchising and getting more competitors in.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You're weren't just thumbing your nose at Kyle McSlarrow? (Chief of the cable lobby)

REHR: No, no, no! I like Kyle a lot...he's a very hard-charging competitor on issues.

TV TECHNOLOGY: How do you intend to secure multicast must-carry? That's been beaten back and beaten back; Kyle and his predecessors have eaten the NAB's lunch. What's your strategy?

REHR: I don't think we've explained it the best way we could on Capitol Hill...

TV TECHNOLOGY: OK, so how are you going to explain it any better?

REHR: I'm not quite sure yet. I think it will be a combination of offering greater local programming choices, and the fact that we don't need more [bits] than we are currently using in the cable pipe.

We're going to be having a multicast coalition meeting, trying to expand the number of people involved with us. That's going to be coming up in the next few weeks.

We need to think about how we can explain it in an easy-to-understand way. I think that's been a troubling point, because cable basically has said, "they're taking our property," the Fifth Amendment argument. They were smart to get out there first; they positioned it first. We need to think about how we can reposition it so people can understand that we're really not taking their property. We're not getting any more or any less than we currently have, and we'll actually offer more program choices.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What is the alternative?

REHR: Well, I think the alternative--and there's some talk on Capitol Hill already--is coming to a middle ground; maybe limiting the number of multicast channels that might need to be carried. But that still is in its infancy. I think we need to press the case ahead and look for an opportunity to strike.

TV TECHNOLOGY: There are those who say broadcasters could use their own time to promote multicast channels, and maybe take some subscribers away from multichannel video providers.

REHR: I think that could happen. I also think the telcos will be interested in perhaps having more multicast channels. I think we're going to see a lot of things.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Perhaps a lot of different channel combinations, depending on the form of distribution?

REHR: Yes. From the broadcaster perspective, we need to be sure at the end of the day that we have sufficient eyeballs to generate the revenue in order to pay for the multicasts.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You've talked about getting the message out that over-the-air TV has better quality picture than other services... how do you get that across to people?

REHR: That's what we're working on. That's the $64,000 question. If you have the answer to that, I would hire you immediately, we would unveil this program, and I would look like a genius.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You get more pixels in our picture than you do in that guy's picture...

REHR: ... and we have to explain that to the average salesperson in a retail store who looks at you and says, "do you want a digital television," and you ask, "well is it HD?" and they say, "well, its all just digital, you know..."

Or you might walk in and say, "I want digital television," and they'll say, "well, you won't get it on yours, you need to buy a new one," as opposed to talking about converters.

I do think we need to think about how to explain to people that with digital television, they won't need to be tied to the yolk of cable, that if they put an antenna up... and this is going to be complicated, because you hear it said that people don't want to put antennas up on their houses anymore, yet people put dishes up. How do we explain to them, that with digital television, their signal may be more pristine, that their television will look better, and they will not have to pay anything to get the channels they most care about.

TV TECHNOLOGY: There's a big consumer electronics piece to that... the TVs have to work.

REHR: That's right. And I'll tell you my favorite story. My wife... we've been married for 14 years. She has a television that her mother gave her when she was in college. She said to me the other night, "you'd better make sure this thing works. I don't want to have to choose between you and that TV." So I have a real big incentive to make conversion work for over-the-air analog televisions!

TV TECHNOLOGY: Have you ever lived in a household with that relied on over-the-air television?

REHR: Oh yes. My whole life in the suburbs of Chicago, we had over-the-air television. We did not have cable; we did not have satellite. My first house on Capitol Hill we only had over-the-air.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Do you have a digital receiver at home now?

REHR: No, but I'm getting one. We have cable; we have over-the-air.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Were you cognizant of the digital transition before you came here?

REHR: I knew more than the average American, who doesn't really know much about this. I knew that there was a transition, and I knew the quality of the picture would end up being better.

TV TECHNOLOGY: CBS said they'd never do HD without a flag, but they're doing it. Why does NAB support the flag?

REHR: Because we don't want people to steal our content. That was one of our issues during the state leadership conference.

TV TECHNOLOGY: So it has absolutely nothing to do with getting Fox back into the NAB fold?

REHR: No, I think it's the right thing to do.

TV TECHNOLOGY: How do you intend to entice the non-member networks to rejoin the NAB?

REHR: First off, the past is past, and we're not going to relive the past. We need to demonstrate value. I can't just call them up and say, "hey, you want to rejoin because it's the right thing to do?"

When we testified on Capitol Hill on the broadcast flag, we got the networks in; we had our consultants there, our lobbyists there and we said, "what's our position?" And I think it's the first time that's been done in a long time, where all the interested parties on the broadcast TV side were all in one room talking about what we should do.

TV TECHNOLOGY: There were schisms in the beer wholesalers lobby. Can you relate an experience you had there that would apply here?

REHR: The beer industry is even more ferociously competitive than the broadcast industry, and there are people who won't sit next to people who have different brands. Over time, you look for opportunities for people to work together.

And you want to look for the common adversary.

So on the one hand, we do a lot of little things, like working on retrans, indecency, communicating with members, getting them involved... and on the other side we have to say, "OK, now who really wants to put us all out of business? Who really wants to drive your stock price down?"

TV TECHNOLOGY: Who is the common adversary?

REHR: I think it's a combination of new competitors--a little bit of cable, the viewpoint in the advertising industry that only new media counts... it's a lot of little things.

The other thing is, we're going to see NAB's reputation on Capitol Hill increase and expand. It will only be perceived as being more influential.

TV TECHNOLOGY: It's already perceived as being so influential as to inflame Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Are you sure that's a good strategy?

REHR: Having worked for John McCain's wife, who owns a beer distributorship... (laughs)

I think that we don't take advantage of every opportunity. I think we need to raise the NAB's visibility with staffers between the ages of 23 and 28.

I think we need to educate the people who don't have any experience with free over-the-air television.

We need to re-approach Capitol Hill. NAB has been particularly good at working the central committees--the [Senate] Commerce Committee and the [House] Energy and Commerce Committee; we will do as well or better. We also need to expand into the general membership of the House and Senate.

The other thing is, you've got 24-year-old staffers who might tell their boss something, and if they don't really know our business, that's a big problem.

It's going to be in a way that won't make Sen. McCain like us any more, but he's not going to like us any less.

TV TECHNOLOGY: There are about 1,400 exhibitors at NAB... many of them small businesses that have gone through a lot of iterations because of decisions made in Washington, D.C. Where do they stand in the NAB universe. Are you aware of how lobbying and lawmaking affects them?

REHR: Yes. Before I worked for the Beer Wholesalers, I worked for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

We are first and foremost pro-broadcast. Anyone who provides goods and services to broadcasters is considered an ally and a friend. Our Board of Directors make certain policies which could help some, maybe adversely impact others... that's at the discretion of the board.

My own viewpoint is that over time, those people will become foot soldiers for us, and more like partners.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What is the most important thing that you as a lobbyist can do here in Washington, D.C. for small businesses?

REHR: I think we can provide some certainty. We can prevent over-regulation and a great deal of uncertainty. And, as a trade association, we can help affect the perception of the industry. If people in America think broadcast is a dead model... all these people will be looking for new jobs.

I'm extremely determined not to cede our advocacy role, but also to be--I like to use the word, "evangelical"--about the industry.

You ask people in the hall here who we are, and they say, "we're lobbyists," and I say, "we're not lobbyists, we're not reactive, we're advocates."

We're going to try and figure out how we can stay on the offense.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What is your favorite TV program?

REHR: I move around the dial a lot... but it includes "Boston Legal," "Desperate Housewives," "CSI," "The Simpsons." I loved the Olympics, I love sports, although I don't have enough time for sports...

To be the true head of NAB, I think it's important that I watch a lot of shows, so I get a real feel for what's going on. My wife tells me, the two things I love to do most... listen to the radio and watch television. And now I'm being paid for it.