NAB CEO Touts TV Broadcasters as a Local Lifeline Amid Pandemic

NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith - Getty - H 2020
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NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith

National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO Gordon Smith on Wednesday asserted that "broadcasters endure" as he discussed how they are providing a "literal lifeline" to communities during COVID-19 and as the association works with legislators and regulators in an effort to give them some relief during this "most challenging time."

The remote state-of-the-industry address, followed by a conversation with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, opened “NAB Show Express,” a two-day virtual conference featuring select sessions that had been planned for the 2020 NAB Show. The annual convention, which last year attracted 90,000 delegates, had been scheduled to take place last month in Las Vegas before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We know this is likely the most challenging time local stations have ever encountered,” Smith said in his opening remarks. “This pandemic has crippled our nation’s economy and our industry has not been spared. Broadcasters are confronting plummeting advertising sales and enormous operational challenges. And yet, stations are doing what they do best: delivering the trusted and lifesaving information your communities need.”

On that positive note, he added that broadcasters also are working to “support small businesses and local restaurants, raise funds for those who have lost their jobs and help feed the hungry.” Smith added that broadcasters around the country are partnering with schools to help them set up virtual classrooms and have donated nearly $100 million worth of airtime so far to share NAB PSAs aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The exec also addressed the sombre reality of the crisis. “Some [broadcasters] have had to take out loans to make payroll. Some have had to let go of trusted and capable staff," he said. "And some, I am very sorry to say, have had to close their doors entirely.”

Noting that "the NAB is working around the clock to deliver meaningful relief for the industry," Smith related that this includes various initiatives with legislators. This week, the House of Representatives issued bipartisan draft legislation that could expand Payroll Protection Program loan eligibility for local radio and television stations. And a bipartisan letter was recently sent to the Trump administration urging a portion of federal agency advertising dollars be directed to local news and media outlets.

In his keynote, Smith noted that the NAB is also working with the FCC, which “heard our concerns and has announced multiple extensions of deadlines, clarifications and exceptions to existing policies."

Pai broadly stated that the commission is looking to see what it can do on the regulatory side "to make sure that broadcasters are able to, literally, keep the lights on. And whether that's changing fee structures or something else on the regulatory side or working with Congress to make sure they address the needs of broadcasters, we are very open to doing that."

He added, "What we want to see emerge from this is a broadcasting industry that remains vital across the country. Not one that becomes shriveled and may not have the ability to survive in some of these smaller markets."

The chairman also highlighted that the FCC last week asked carriers and internet service providers to extend until June 30 its “Keep America Connected” pledge. This is an FCC-initiated program that started in mid-March, asking companies to make a 60-day pledge that they would not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the pandemic; and open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. Pai said that roughly 700 companies made the initial pledge, including AT&T and Verizon.

“I challenge them to go even further,” he said, with the suggestion of “waiving data caps, increasing speeds at no charge to consumers, offering low-income consumer specific services tailored for them, and working with schools and hospitals.”

On several occasions during the conversation, Smith — a former Republican Senator from Oregon — nudged Pai to run for president. “There have been rumors for three years that you might move on to something else, I think you should move on to the White House,” Smith said as Pai chuckled.