NAB Goes for Broke on Multicasting

The outgoing chief of the broadcast lobby isn't quietly fading to black. Instead, Eddie Fritts is fixing to conclude his tenure as president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters with an all-out melee over multicast must-carry.

"We are focused on it like a laser," he said Wednesday at a small press luncheon featuring a "multicast menu" of free Heirloom Tomato Mosaic and Lemon Crusted Salmon, among other items; and a "cable bill of fare" featuring $65 crackers, $5 condiments, water for $16.95 and a directive to "please contact your server for available desserts in your area."

As far as the NAB is concerned, there is no compromise position for multicast must-carry. It simply has to be universal, so smaller stations are not left out. The NAB is staging "fly-ins" to bring broadcasters to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. The first took place July 21; more than 90 broadcasters are expected to attend another scheduled for Sept. 8. Appointments for the contingent have been secured with all members of the House and Senate Commerce committees, where DTV legislation is taking shape.

The NAB will also continue its print ad campaign after the holiday; and it has launched to futher the cause.

The linchpins of the NAB's argument for multicast must-carry include increased competition for cable and more local programming.

In response, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Assocation issued the standard yawn: "NAB's tired rhetoric doesn't disguise the fact that broadcasters are asking the government for another handout that the FCC has already twice rejected."

Lawmakers have yet to fully get into the multicast fray, however. Fritts said Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) were supporters of multicast must-carry, and that he expected them to present it, presumably in an amendment, "at the appropriate time."

Staffs in both the House and Senate are said to be working feverishly on DTV draft bills, which will have to be submitted to the respective budget committees by Sept. 17, according to a House source. The working draft on the House side contains a provision for digital (one signal), but not multicast, must-carry. House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has said he wouldn't support multicast must-carry, but his counterpart in the Senate, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has made no such commitments. Stevens has therefore been the target of many of the lobbying efforts of the NAB as well as the NCTA, both of which are situated on the same Washington, D.C. city block.

"We heard a group from around the corner went fishing in Alaska," Fritts told reporters. Referring to NAB vice president of government relations, he said "Well, John Orlando went fishing with Stevens in July. He went 'multicasting.'"

Orlando said he expected to see three main items -- multicasting, converter box subsidies and a hard date -- covered in commerce committee bills. He also noted that DTV legislation is being considered under the domain of budget reconciliation. Each of the commerce committees must come up with $4.8 billion in the telecom area. For that reason, others on Capitol Hill aren't as optimistic about seeing a converter box subsidy this year.

"It will just be a hard date," said one lobbyist.