Three Reports from Las Vegas — Localism Trumps Flash, says NAB President

Celia Wexler, Common Cause’s vice president for advocacy, is attending the NAB conference in Las Vegas and filed this story Monday, April 19, after attending a breakfast with broadcasters and members of Congress.

Today at the conference of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, the capital of glitz, in the heart of a mammoth trade show displaying as many flashing lights and technological wizardry as possible, NAB president Edward Fritts said that “leading-edge localism will keep our advantage over the flashy and the fleeting.”

“In 2004,” Fritz said, his high-definition visage flashing on a huge TV screen, “broadcasting’s biggest issues revolve around how government balances technological forces with economic forces with the public good. When I say technological forces, I mean digital. When I say economic forces, I mean the clash of broadcast, cable and satellite. And when I say the public good, I mean us.”

Fritz’ view of the world was not much challenged by key lawmakers – all Republican — who participated in the NAB’s congressional breakfast on Monday. For example, on the issue of indecency, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) said that indecency standards, which now apply only to broadcasters, should extend to the cable and satellite industries as well. “Cable and satellite don’t have to play by the same rules,” Barton said. “To me, that’s unfair.”

Added Representative Greg Walden (R-WA), “We spent a year debating Bono’s [use of] the F word” at the Golden Globe telecast, but the Sopranos use it all the time. “We ought to treat everyone the same,” he said.

The congressional panel also was sympathetic to broadcasters’ concerns that satellite radio companies were encroaching on broadcasters’ territory when they inserted local weather and traffic information in their programming. House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) said that this problem could be solved without legislation. “Tough letters to the FCC might suffice,” he said.

he lawmakers also supported broadcaster concerns that low-power FM stations could encroach on commercial radio. To much applause, Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) said that he believed that the “Mitre test was flawed,” and that he opposed legislation to make it easier for more low power FM stations to be established.

Members of Congress had also had some bad news for broadcasters. Indecency legislation is chugging along in both chambers, and will likely raise fines for broadcasts that violate indecency standards, the congressional panel agreed, although they stressed that the House legislation had taken broadcasters’ concerns to heart.

Upton, the primary sponsor of indecency legislation that has passed the House, said that the House bill “did not change the standard” for determining indecency, it only raised the fines. “We appreciated your input,” he told broadcasters.

Walden noted that the final bill ensures that the amount of fines levied will depend in part on the size of the broadcast company, its economic viability, and where the indecent material originated. The concern, he said, was not to penalize affiliates if they have little control over what their parent companies send over the airwaves.

Burns predicted that the Senate version of the indecency bill would go to his chamber’s floor within the next two weeks. That bill, he acknowledged, does change some standards, and includes provisions dealing with media violence and media ownership. But the congressional panel agreed that efforts would be made in a House-Senate conference to keep the less restrictive House language. “In conference, we’ll try to insist on the House language,” Upton said.

And lawmakers advised broadcasters to be more vigilant about the placement of prescription drug ads that parents may not want children to see. Members said that Congress was not likely to restrict the pharmaceutical industry from running TV ads, a $3 billion cash cow for broadcasters. “No immediate action seems in the offing,” Representative Michael Bilirakis (R-FL) said. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed with Barton that restricting such advertising would raise serious constitutional issues.

Nevertheless, both Bilirakis and Sensenbrenner said that the continuing concerns over the rising cost of prescription drugs and the content of some of the ads means that both Republicans and Democrats might consider restrictions in the future. “Some of the pressure on us can be solved by you,” Sensenbrenner told broadcasters. “Have your programming mangers look at the ads and when they’re advertised,” he said, noting that a Viagra ad on family shows prompt complaints to legislators.

Broadcasters Need to Serve the Public, says FCC Chairman

Click here to read the second report from Las Vegas

Copps and Adelstein Urge the FCC to Impose Stronger Public Interest Standards for Broadcasters

Click here to read the final report from Las Vegas

See More: Media & Democracy