Retired LIN TV CEO Gary Chapman recounts how the NAB board decided to go for it all in 1991 — a law that that would empower TV station to either demand carriage on local cable systems or demand compensation for permitting carriage. The article is excepted from an article that is one in a series on the 25th anniversary of retrans becoming law at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland.
The Origin Of Retrans, According To Chapman
Retransmission consent was born in January 1991 at the NAB board meeting at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla. I was TV board chair and Ron Townsend of Gannett was vice chairman. This was the longest TV board meeting (nearly 8 hours) in NAB history. At mid-day, it spilled out to the beach. The problem was that we believed we could accomplish either must carry or retransmission but not both.
This divided the television industry. At the time, the industry was divided into network affiliates and independent TV stations. The independent stations were led by Tribune, one of the largest TV groups in America. The independents were also represented in Washington by the Association of Independent Television Association (INTV).
I came to understand and genuinely believed that if the network affiliates and NAB board voted for retransmission and not must carry, the independent TV stations would break off from the NAB and pursue must carry under INTV and oppose our effort for retrans. INTV had a capable head in David Donovan, who later became president of the now defunct Association of Maximum Service Television.
But I felt retrans was vital to our future. It was a fluid, dynamic, exciting time in American broadcasting marked by rapid change. Were we going to be able to play a part in determining our future and be the beneficiaries of change or left to be part of the failing industries of American past?
After much deliberation, the board simply couldn’t choose. So, we took a third course. We gave NAB President Eddie Fritts and Jim May, head of NAB government relations, the marching orders to go forth and obtain legislation for must carry and retrans.
As I walked out of the conference room after NAB Joint Board Chairman Lowry Mays brought the gavel down to adjourn, I remember thinking we had avoided dividing the broadcasters and the NAB. Divided industries never succeed.
But I also thought what an uphill battle we would have. Some said impossible. But I knew one thing: when we left that conference room we were enthusiastically in lock step and laser focused on accomplishing our common dual goal.
The NAB’s had to figure out not only how to unite, organize and motivate TV broadcasters, but also how to legally position and write the language that would pass congressional muster. After many attempts, NAB lawyer Jack Goodman came up with the retransmission opt-out concept and language.
It would take nearly two years (from January 1991 through October 1992) to turn Goodman’s language into law.
It wasn’t easy. Because some of NAB TV members were owned by cable companies or companies that owned cable programming, not all members were fully engaged. Some stayed on the sidelines.
The biggest obstacle came at the end when then President George H.W. Bush vetoed the comprehensive cable re-regulation bill of which retrans and must carry were a part. Overriding the veto came down to mustering 67 votes in the Senate. We realized that not only did we need support, but we needed all votes to be present. That raised logistical problems.
The day of the Senate vote, Oct. 5, 1992, I watched the proceedings from the Senate gallery as Fritts and May met with staff and members advancing our position and helping to line up the votes.
Congress sustained 35 vetoes during that first Bush administration, but it overrode the 36th and retrans and must carry became law. There was great relief, jubilation and celebration.
That night Fritts sent out a memo to the NAB membership. The first sentence said, “Today was a defining moment in the history of broadcasting.” He was truly right.
Every cent of retransmission revenue began right that day.
As difficult as the course we chose proved to be — some said impossible — I believe we chose not only the right course, but the only course to preserve and allow our industry to grow and thrive.