Policy

NCTA's Point Person: Luckett Helps Nets Find A Voice

1/26/2007 7:00 PM Eastern

Cable programmers, backed by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, have been immersed in many important policy debates since the 1990s.

The networks opted to apply a voluntary ratings system to their programs and tied it in with the V-chip in television sets. More recently, they’ve fought against having the indecency standards imposed on broadcast television extended to cable networks.

They’ve also battled efforts to force cable programming to be sold on an à la carte basis, letting consumers pick only those networks they want to buy. And they’ve been at odds with broadcasters over whether every new digital “multicast” channel broadcasters create should be guaranteed carriage on local cable systems.

In those and all other policy efforts concerning cable programming since 1995, the networks’ point person at the NCTA has been former Senate aide Jill Luckett.

Luckett’s own advocates, including current and former NCTA colleagues and programmers, say she’s due some credit for wins on those and other public policy issues.

“I think you look at the results,” said Decker Anstrom, who hired Luckett at NCTA long before becoming chief operating officer at Landmark Communications. “Are the programmers’ issues getting attention at NCTA? Has NCTA been effective in winning those issues? And she’s got a heck of a batting average right now.”

Luckett, 48, trained to become NCTA’s senior vice president of program network policy in two key places. The first was on Capitol Hill as legislative director (and other staff jobs) for Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, a senior Republican on the Commerce Committee, which oversees telecommunications issues. The other was as special adviser to Federal Communications Commission member Rachelle Chong, specializing in wireless communications and cable topics.

The FCC wasn’t a great fit for the Buffalo, N.Y., native and Bucknell University (political science) graduate. Packwood, she explained, was a big deregulator. “And then I went to a regulatory agency.” But her 18 months there taught her how that agency worked. “For this job, it was a perfect second step.”

Anstrom became NCTA president in January 1994, at a time when cable programmers weren’t that happy with the association. They were coming off an awful two-year stretch during which rate re-regulation brought new network launches crashing to a halt. (The freeze thawed in 1994 when the rules changed to let operators pass along the cost of new programming.)

High on Anstrom’s list was addressing programmers’ concerns — at a time when it seemed the networks might bolt NCTA altogether. On the advice of then-NCTA programmers’ committee chairman Winston “Tony” Cox and others, Luckett’s job was created.

Anstrom said the right candidate needed political and policy savvy, strong interpersonal skills and enough toughness that programmers would be sure their viewpoints were expressed and heard within the NCTA. Luckett met those criteria, he said, and the association was lucky to find her.

Oxygen Media Chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, who’s also an NCTA director and active member of the programmers’ executive committee, said Luckett’s briefings helped her on many occasions to state cable’s case at the FCC and Congress.

“Personal experience tells me that policy makers and legislators respect Jill as a knowledgeable and credible voice on cable policy issues and a woman who speaks with great integrity,” Laybourne said in endorsing Luckett as a Wonder Woman.

Lifetime Entertainment Services CEO Betty Cohen, also part of the 25-member programmers’ executive committee, said Luckett’s been a whiz at getting committee members together for conference calls despite the scheduling complexities and at keeping members up to speed. “She’s extremely responsible, she’s extremely responsive,” Cohen said, adding: “She’s very savvy about all the different agendas and the nuances at play in dealing with programmers, cable operators and regulatory issues going on on the Hill.”

Laybourne also said Luckett “must have low blood pressure. Her grace under fire helps our industry in an often highly charged political environment.”

Luckett laughed at the blood-pressure description but conceded “you do just have to let things roll off your back sometimes.”

TV One CEO Johnathan Rodgers, another NCTA programmers’ executive committee member, credited Luckett with knowing programmer CEOs are “very, very strong-willed individuals. She’s able to direct that and focus that and keep us on target.”

In late 2005, The Walt Disney Co., fearing à la carte pricing more than the prospect of its family-friendly channels being regulated according to broadcast indecency standards, floated the prospect of “leveling the playing field” between broadcast and cable networks, as Luckett described it when asked about how the NCTA handled that potentially divisive situation. Disney “ended up not pushing that,” Luckett said. “In the end that idea did not carry the day, and Disney has been very supportive” of ad campaigns promoting parental control technology and other voluntary measures.

How did Luckett help defuse that situation? “We had lots of meetings,” she said with a laugh. Ultimately the group decision was not to pursue that “leveling” approach. “Really, that’s one of the values of NCTA, to bring people together and to let them talk to each other and try and figure out what makes the most sense for the industry to do.” She called that situation “an example of where NCTA provided real value, to give people the opportunity to do that and to try and come to a consensus.”

As the mother of two boys, ages 14 and 17, Luckett has been trying to tip the work-family balance a little more toward family, especially as her older son, Tyler, is dealing with college visits and applications. She’s been trying to keep her Thursday calendar clear of meetings so as to work at home, with the consent of Kyle McSlarrow, the third NCTA president she’s worked for.

“I’m big on balance and keeping things in perspective,” Luckett said. The October death of long-time NCTA attorney David Nicoll, she said, “made all of us step back and say, there are other things that are important in life.”

Outside of the office, “kid-related” activities such as school volunteer work in her home of Rockville, Md., are important. So is keeping up with what her clientele have on TV. The males in the Luckett family (husband Scott, a vice president at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, and younger son Andrew) dominate the high-definition set watching sports.

But mom’s favorites include news programming, C-SPAN, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Closer and Monk. The only series she never misses, though, is 24. “A broadcast show, unfortunately,” she laughed.

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