Backtalk: Weathering Anstroms Departure

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The biggest news of the week in cable never made TheWall Street Journal or The New York Times.

And that was probably just fine with Decker Anstrom, theunassuming, often self-effacing and now lame-duck president of the National CableTelevision Association.

After working at the NCTA for 11 years, the past five asits president, Anstrom, 48, made his own tidal waves last Thursday morning -- both withinthe cable industry and the Beltway -- when he announced that he was resigning to acceptthe president and CEO spot at The Weather Channel.

Anstrom, who has never worked a day in the private sector,surprised even his closest friends, who said they were totally taken aback, becauseAnstrom -- a Midwesterner who can apparently keep a confidence -- never told them of hisupcoming plans.

In fact, Anstrom said, "I surprised myself,"referring to his decision to accept the post at TWC, which became available several weeksago when its longtime president, Michael Eckert, resigned to take an early retirement.

He said the call from Landmark, TWC's parent, cameshortly after Eckert's resignation. Anstrom apparently seized the moment, taking atop post in a city that he knows well, as his wife hails from Atlanta and she still hasfamily there.

Catching up with Anstrom by phone last Thursday night at 9p.m., I found him already down in Atlanta, meeting his new staff at TWC, while his staffat the NCTA was still digesting the news of his upcoming departure.

Anstrom will not start his new gig until Aug. 1, leavingthe NCTA's executive-search committee ample time to find his replacement.

But Anstrom was already on the spot in Atlanta, and he wasjust taking a breather from work when he spoke to me. After our phone call, he told me, hewould be returning to TWC that same night to meet the employees who work the second shiftthere.

And that's the type of character and temperament thatwill be sorely missed at the NCTA as it attempts to fill some very big shoes.

Under Anstrom's stewardship, cable -- once thewhipping boy and play toy in Congress and regulatory circles -- gained more than a patinaof respect.

After inheriting a mess when he took the president'sspot five years ago, Anstrom hung tight and steady, showing the industry how to clean upits act and keep its ugly laundry out of the spotlight.

The cable industry, too, was wise to listen to the tirelessNCTA president, who constantly made the rounds on the hill, taking the pulse of the verypeople who could do cable the most harm, as they had demonstrated in the past with theenactment of the 1992 Cable Act.

Today, by most accounts, the cable industry has matured tothe point where it no longer needs the kind of rehab program that it went through duringAnstrom's five years at the helm.

The industry certainly has matured, almost to the pointwhere the days of the on-time guarantee are gone, with cable having learning the hard waythat customer service matters everywhere -- especially in Washington, where electedofficials always aim at the easiest marks.

While Anstrom is leaving at a time when the industry hasgained some respect in the Beltway, some people are wondering what lies ahead for the NCTAas the industry continues to consolidate, especially with the new owners often beingtelephone companies with very different lobbying agendas.

Anstrom said this uncertainty was not at all the reason whyhe is leaving, nor was he reading the tea leaves in the way that I was spreading them outfor his interpretation.

The new NCTA head, he said, will still have to hammer outconsensus among its diverse membership and do the day-to-day block-and-tackle work ofmeeting with Congress to ensure that the industry gets its points across effectively.

That's sound advice from a guy who knows whathe's talking about. While the industry will sorely miss his leadership, the good newsis that he's still part of it, and the staff at TWC will have a gem of a boss.

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