NAB Rings Out 2015 With Big Wins In DC

Just this week, the trade group succeeded in getting a rider attached to the new budget bill grandfathering current JSAs. And in October, it managed to derail another Tom Wheeler anti-broadcasting measure — eliminating the so-called exclusivity rules that effectively block the importation of distant signals into markets. While there are more challenges ahead in the new year, the NAB leadership and staff should spend the holidays reveling in their accomplishments.

The NAB believes it would be bad form to crow about its recent successes in Congress and at the FCC. It probably is, especially in Washington where done deals can suddenly become undone.

But I labor under no such political correctness.

This week, the news came down that Gordon Smith and his team had attached a provision to the federal government’s just-passed $1.1 trillion spending bill that would go a long way toward reversing the FCC’s heavy-handed banning of joint sales agreements in April 2014 — Tom Wheeler’s gift to the NAB on the eve of its convention that year.

At the end of October, we reported that the NAB managed to derail another Wheeler anti-broadcasting measure — eliminating the so-called exclusivity rules that effectively block the importation of distant signals into markets. Without the rules, the ability of stations to negotiate fair retrans deals would have been seriously undermined.

The back-to-back wins add up to the best year the NAB has had on the TV front in a long, long time. (The NAB, incidentally, scored a big win on the radio front, too, this week when the Copyright Royalty Board slashed the royalties that radio stations pay to simulcast music online.)

And NAB needed some wins. Over the past several years, two successive FCC administrations have driven the incentive auction — the plan for reallocating TV spectrum from TV to wireless — without sufficient regard for broadcasters’ concerns.


And it hasn’t been able to muster the mojo to mount any kind of legislative or regulatory offensive. It has settled for simply trying to preserve the status quo as it did on JSAs and the exclusivity rules.

In just over 200 words, the JSA rider essentially grandfathers all JSAs prior to April 2014 and the many dual-station or sidecar operations they enable all over the country. The relief for pre-existing JSAs sunsets in 2025, which might as well be 3025 given the pace of change in the media world. New JSAs are still banned.

Attaching the rider to the omnibus spending bill wasn’t easy. Just ask any of the lobbyists from the many other industries and businesses who failed in the effort. According to Politico, Sheldon Adelson (no online gambling ban), the financial services industry (blocking new requirements for advisers) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (protection from GMO labeling requirements) were among the losers.

To succeed, the NAB had to build strong bipartisan support, and it did.

The Senate JSA bill was introduced by Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and co-sponsored by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Tim Scott (R-N.C.). Schumer is among the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, widely expected to take over as Senate Minority Leader in the next Congress.

The key to blocking Wheeler on the exclusivity rules was lining up enough Democratic opposition on Capitol Hill to persuade at least one of the other Democrats on the FCC to balk. Again, the NAB did the job.

The last straw might have come in a letter from four senators telling the commissioners to back off. The four included not only the chairman of the Judiciary and Commerce Committees, but also the ranking Democrats, Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.)

Two other Democratic senators — Schumer and Diane Feinstein (Calif.) — and the Congressional Black Caucus also weighed in on the side of the broadcasters and the preservation of the exclusivity rules.

With that kind of weight, Wheeler simply couldn’t hold his three-person Democratic majority together.

In both causes, I should note, the NAB may have been aided by Wheeler’s propensity for antagonizing lawmakers who should be his allies.

Here’s the latest evidence for that: Following an oversight hearing before the House Communications Subcommittee in November, five Democratic members sent a letter to Wheeler expressing their annoyance at him for his inability to “give complete responses to nearly half of the questions posed to you by Democratic members.”

All NAB members should be thanking the association. That would include Sinclair CEO David Smith, who has not always been a big fan of the NAB, having no interest in its forced clubishness and doubting its effectiveness. Well, he still doesn’t have to hang out with the other board members, but he should now be willing to acknowledge his NAB dues are well spent.

Sinclair, along with Nexstar, are among the chief beneficiaries of the JSA measure.

You don’t really get a break in the big-time lobbying business. And great challenges await the NAB in 2016.

In the repacking of the TV band that will follow the incentive auction, the NAB must insure than the remaining TV stations have sufficient time to move to their new channels and are fully reimbursed for those moves. It must also see to it that the FCC makes “all reasonable efforts” not to degrade the coverage of stations in the transition as it is required by law.

The NAB also knows that Wheeler is determined to take down broadcasters a notch or two on retrans, and he’s got the vehicle to do it — a congressionally mandated proceeding to review broadcasters’ and MVPDs’ obligation to negotiate in good faith.

It’s fraught with danger for broadcasters. Wheeler, for instance, could use the proceeding to erode broadcasters’ local programming exclusivity. In other words, do what he couldn’t do this year.

But that’s all for the new year.

Right now, the NAB leadership and staff should spend the holidays reveling in their accomplishments.

And if they cannot spike the ball, they can at least spike the punch.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

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