NBC drops lobby group

Change: The network resigns from the National Association of Broadcasters.

March 08, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

NBC, saying it could no longer support a group whose positions "clearly go against our best interests," resigned yesterday from the National Association of Broadcasters, a TV industry lobbying and self-regulatory agency headquartered in Washington.

Although several reasons for NBC's resignation were outlined in a letter to NAB president and CEO Edward O. Fritts, the main sticking point cited was the limit on how many local television stations a single company can own.

Under current law, no group or individual can own stations with access to more than 35 percent of the nation. NBC, whose network-owned affiliates broadcast to just over 25 percent of the country, would like to see that cap increased or abolished. The NAB, whose members include both local affiliates and the networks, supports retention of the 35 percent cap.

"Given the NAB's continued unwillingness to embrace a forward looking strategy aimed at securing significant deregulatory relief for the television industry, we find ourselves with no other alternative," NBC president Robert C. Wright wrote to Fritts.

NBC and the other broadcast networks have long been keeping an envious eye on the world of cable TV, where there is no similar restriction on the number of networks a company can own -- especially since, by definition, each cable station is available to viewers throughout the country. In the world of free TV, the more local stations a network owns outright, the more revenue goes directly into its coffers, and the more leverage it has in selling its programming.

Most local stations, however, are owned by smaller companies -- Hearst-Argyle, for instance, owns Baltimore's NBC affiliate, WBAL, Channel 11. Keeping the 35 percent cap gives these broadcast companies more power to broker deals with the networks and generate more money for themselves.

Not surprisingly, these non-network broadcasters make up the bulk of the NAB's membership.

"NBC has come to the NAB board of directors and suggested we should revisit our support for the 35 percent cap," says Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of communications for the NAB. "It's the contention of our board that these rules are still appropriate."

That insistence on staying put clearly isn't sitting with NBC, which paid $400,000 in fees annually to the NAB.

"An effective and vibrant NAB should be debating what new regulatory structures are needed to allow free, over-the-air television to compete with the newly dominant pay services," Wright wrote. "What's more, the NAB should be moving heaven and Earth to make these changes a reality.

"Unfortunately ... the NAB has been captured by a perspective that is focused on maintaining the status quo rather than looking toward the future."

Both ABC and CBS remain members of the NAB; Fox resigned from the association in June, citing concerns similar to NBC's.

"We very much believe the [35 percent] cap should be raised, so that broadcast free-over-the-air television can compete in this unbelievably competitive marketplace," said Gil Schwartz, senior vice president of communications for CBS, "and in that belief, we differ with some members of the NBA ...

"But that belief doesn't detract from our commitment to the organization."

WBAL news wins 6 p.m.

For the first time in two years, WBAL, Channel 11, had the top-rated news program at 6 p.m. during February sweeps, giving the NBC affiliate victories in two of the five daily news slots.

While the fight for ratings supremacy between WBAL and WJZ, Channel 13, remains a nip-and-tuck affair, the February ratings left a lot of smiles on the faces at Channel 11, which won at both 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

"The bread-and-butter newscasts are at 5, 6 and 11," said WBAL Vice President and General Manager Bill Fine. "To win two out of those three ... is a source of great excitement for everyone here."

At 6 p.m., WBAL finished with a 10.2 rating, compared to 9.9 for WJZ; each ratings point translates to roughly 10,000 viewing households. At 5 p.m., WBAL earned an 8.8, WJZ an 8.1.

WJZ, however, remained ahead at 6 a.m. (7.8 vs. 6.0), noon (7.0 vs. 4.0) and 11 p.m. (11.7 vs. 10.6). And help could be on the way for 5 and 6 p.m., as WJZ has plucked the syndicated "Rosie O'Donnell Show" from WMAR, Channel 2, and will plug it into the 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot beginning in September. While "Rosie" may not provide as good a lead-in to the evening news as Oprah Winfrey does for WBAL, it should do better than the current WJZ tandem of "Real TV" and "Judge Mills Lane."

"I never like to predict the outcome of any program," said WJZ Vice President and General Manager Jay Newman. "But we do know that the programs we have had for years [in the 4 p.m.-5 p.m. slot] have been Band-Aids. Rosie O'Donnell is one of the strongest performers nationally, in terms of talk shows."

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