Cable Operators

NCTA Will Need a Uniter

11/29/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — National Cable
& Telecommunications Association
president Kyle McSlarrow will
exit his post next spring — no, he
said, he won’t reconsider — having
told the trade group’s board he was
ready to get a job in the industry
he’s been defending.

But his exit from cable’s top lobbying job
comes at a tricky time in Washington, as the
industry faces some new challenges.

While Time Warner Cable chairman and
CEO Glenn Britt praised McSlarrow for having
guided the industry through a time of
“great change,” those changes don’t show
many signs of letting up.

McSlarrow’s successor must have the skills
to work both sides of the aisle, given the current
split in Congress; navigate sea changes in
how cable operators deliver their content; and
cope with big companies that have increasingly
disparate interests.

CONFLICTING INTERESTS

The new president must also ride herd on
large firms whose cable and broadcast interests
increasingly come into conflict, including
Cox Enterprises and News Corp., as
well as Comcast and its soon-to-be affiliate
NBC Universal.

The cable industry also faces the prospect
of a legislative rewrite of communications law
signaled by both Democrats and Republicans;
reform of the Universal Service Fund and National
Broadband Plan at the Federal Communications
Commission; the fallout, legal or
otherwise, from the FCC’s network-neutrality
rulemaking, however that shakes out; and
the content business model’s
potential migration from
traditional cable delivery to
over-the-top online video.
While McSlarrow has
made a point of trying not
to seek government intervention
in the marketplace,
the NCTA’s second-largest operator, Time
Warner Cable, has led the charge for greater
FCC involvement in retransmission-consent
fi ghts that only promise to get more heated as
broadcasters seek more cash for carriage.

News Corp. and Cablevision Systems may
have been at each others’ throats over retransmission
consent, but legislators pointed
out at a recent hearing that both firms are
NCTA members. In fact, all the witnesses at
that hearing — on both sides of the issue —
were NCTA members. That suggests trying to
balance the interests of increasingly amalgamated
media companies will be one of
the key job descriptions for the group’s next
leader.

With the Senate and White House in Democratic
hands, and a newly Republican House,
NCTA could go with either a former Democratic
or Republican legislator if it decides to
go outside the organization. Party affiliation
is not as important as commanding the respect
of the loyal opposition, particularly given
another big election in two years.

When Republican McSlarrow came aboard
in March 2005 — after a string of Democrats
atop the NCTA — the House, Senate and
White House were all in GOP hands. McSlarrow
proved able to work both sides of the aisle
and earn respect from those who disagreed
with him.

If the past is any indication, the NCTA
board will look within and outside the organization.
McSlarrow’s immediate predecessor,
Robert Sachs, had been a corporate and
legal-affairs executive at Continental Cablevision,
while Decker Anstrom, who served before
Sachs, was an in-house pick.

NCTA chairman Patrick Esser declined to
comment on the search beyond his statement
that anyone chosen would ensure that NCTA
remains “one of the most effective trade associations
in Washington,” which would suggest
somebody like, well, Kyle McSlarrow.

CANDIDATES EMERGE

Only days after the announcement, a few
names were offered up by some industry
players and observers who asked not to have
their names on the scorecard.

Today’s top in-house pick would appear to
be McSlarrow’s No. 2, James Assey, a longtime
Democratic staff member on the Senate
Commerce Committee.

Among outsiders, Insight Communications
CEO Michael Willner was said to have
been interested in the job in a previous goround
and has fans on the NCTA’s staff and
board. (He has served several terms as its
board chairman.)

And if the NCTA board wants to think
outside the white male box, there is Multichannel
News
2010 Wonder Woman Gail
MacKinnon, currently heading Time Warner
Cable’s D.C. lobby shop and a former NCTA
staffer with Hill experience. One cable veteran
called her “a great choice,” but suggested
she might prefer staying put.

Some members of Congress will also soon
be out of a job. One tech-savvy name floated
last week was Rick Boucher (D-Va.), soon to be
former chair of the House Communications
Subcommittee, who has made his mark as a
moderate with the respect of both parties.

Regardless, the NCTA should have a large
field of interested candidates. It is one of the
top-paying lobbying jobs in town. McSlarrow
makes more than $2 million per year.

September