JESSELL AT LARGE

Why Is David Smith Not On The TV Board?

I suspect the answer is the Television Operators Caucus. Whatever the reason, not to have Smith on the NAB board is absurd. Sinclair is the sixth largest TV station group ranked by revenue with more stations in more markets than any other. Aside from Sinclair's sheer size, Smith deserves a place within NAB because of his ideas. He is a real industry leader.

Just before the NAB convention, the association announced that Sinclair Broadcast Washington rep Rebecca Hanson had been appointed to the unofficial “diversity” seat reserved for a woman on the TV board.

That’s fine. But there was more to the appointment than a simple desire to give women a greater voice in industry affairs.

Hanson got the seat, I’m told, because her boss, Sinclair CEO David Smith, had failed to win one outright in the last board elections, the results of which were also announced just before the convention.

So, how could that have happened? How could the head of the TV group with the most stations lose a one-station-one-vote election?

I suspect the Television Operators Caucus.

The TOC comprises a dozen or so of the leading and mainly old-line broadcast companies, including, I believe, Hearst, Schurz, Dispatch, Post-Newsweek, Meredith, Scripps, Gannett, Raycom and LIN. (I can’t give you the definitive roll because the group doesn’t have a website and I couldn’t get the executive director on the phone.)

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Although it will occasionally weigh in on policy matters (I recall it was active in fighting the FCC political files initiative a couple of years ago), it functions primarily to assert itself in the affairs of NAB and other industry groups. It is well represented on the NAB TV board and, more important, on the executive committee where the real decisions are made.

Today, four of the six TV representatives on the executive committee are TOC members.

Think of the TOC as the single most powerful political party on the TV side of the NAB. It’s not the only one. The Big Four broadcast networks hold designated seats and constitute a party of their own. They have their own agenda, which may or may not align with that of the TOC. In the early 2000s, a nasty dispute between the TOC and the Big Four over ownership rules led to the ouster of then-President Eddie Fritts and caused the Big Four to quit the NAB for several years.

The TOC controls enough votes that if you are not a TOC member or anointed by the TOC you will have a tough time getting elected to the board. In the recent election, at least five of the six winners were TOC members.

Poor David Smith is neither a member nor among the anointed. I heard that some TOC actively campaigned against him, but I turned up no smoking e-mail proving it.

Not to have Smith on the NAB board is absurd. Sinclair has been a full-fledged NAB member for two years ago and has been supportive of the Technology Apprenticeship Program and the Service to America Awards

Sinclair is the sixth largest TV station group ranked by revenue with more stations in more markets than any other. Although most of Sinclair’s stations are in medium and small markets, it will, upon the closing of its Allbritton deal, own the ABC affiliate in the nation’s capital, WJLA.

Because NAB dues are based on revenue, Sinclair is a major dues payer.

Aside from Sinclair’s sheer size, Smith deserves a place within NAB because of his ideas. He is a real industry leader. He was among the broadcasters who early on aggressively went after retransmission consent fees, creating a new revenue stream that kept the entire medium strong.

He showed other broadcasters how to maneuver around the FCC ban against operating two stations in small and medium markets. And those other broadcasters have profited from the knowledge.

If you talk to Smith, you soon discover that he is strongly committed to broadcasting as ubiquitous, over-the-air medium. He sees it as a digital platform with enormous untapped potential.

That’s why he has been pushing hard for the speedy adoption of the next-generation broadcast system, ATSC 3.0, recognizing that the current one is simply not up to the task of carrying broadcasting into the mobile future.

And Smith is entrepreneurial. Although Sinclair is publicly traded, he controls it and he runs it with a eye not on the next quarter, but on the next decade.

I can see why Smith puts some people off, too.

Unlike most of the TOC members, which have deep roots in newspaper publishing and boast of long traditions of high-quality local TV news, Smith is only lately coming around to the idea that there may be more to news than profits.

Smith can be arrogant and he has not been a joiner or a supporter of industry causes. He was late comer to the NAB, and he continues to eschew other industry organizations like the TVB and the Broadcasters Foundation of America.

His arch-conservative politics have been given flight on his stations’ airwaves, causing political problems not just for Sinclair, but for the entire industry. Some believe that the FCC’s crackdown of JSAs and SSAs was essentially a liberal Democratic backlash against him.

Somebody at NAB — I’m guessing NAB President Gordon Smith or TV chief Marcellus Alexander — tried to undo the slight to Smith by putting Hanson on the board. That was a smart move.

No doubt she will capably represent Sinclair’s views. But she is not David Smith. He is a big personality and a force to be reckoned with. He is not easily ignored. (This fact is probably why some wanted to keep Smith off the board.)

After this embarrassment, I’m not sure why Smith would put himself on the ballot again. But I hope he does. He deserves a spot and the board would benefit from his presence.

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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