I'll Miss the Two Roberts


Like Sally Field in the TV movie Sybil, NCTA president Robert Sachs showed me multiple personalities. When Robert leaves his position later this year, I will miss them.

There was the nice, considerate Robert. I heard that an employee at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is battling cancer, and co-workers have been touched by the attention Robert has shown, and his willingness to share his own experiences fighting and overcoming that dreaded disease. That's class.

There was also the not-so-nice Robert. Far too many people who worked under him — both at the NCTA and at Continental Cablevision/MediaOne — volunteered the news that his treatment of underlings could be egregious and unprofessional. (Those folks asked to remain anonymous.)

Robert also could be abrupt with peers and government officials. I'm told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wouldn't talk to him or let him testify before his Commerce Committee.

Sachs entered the job with a millstone, having to replace Decker Anstrom in 1999. The personable, diplomatic Anstrom put the cable industry through political rehab after passage of the 1992 Cable Act. He earned the esteem of the entire industry, and even the grudging respect of cable bashers.

Anstrom's record was impossible to match, causing Sachs to moan that he was always being compared to “Saint Decker.”

That could explain Robert's sensitivity to criticism. If he disliked one of my stories, he would say something adolescent or not speak to me at all, at least for a few days. Our latest tiff involved my story about how the NCTA (and other prominent D.C. trade groups) declined to issue a statement marking the death of President Reagan, even though Reagan had signed the deregulatory 1984 Cable Act, a measure that propelled Robert and other cable people toward high net-worth status.

When I asked Robert for an interview last week after he announced his resignation, his e-mail response to me and two of his staffers was that NCTA was “still closed for the Reagan funeral” and that his press release spoke for itself. Later, through a spokesman, he said he would talk sometime in July after the dust had settled.

Robert didn't like it that, in a May column that coincided with the NCTA's National Show, Multichannel News editor in chief Marianne Paskowski pointed out that his first contract was renewed 17 months prior to its expiration, but that extension of his current contract, which had less than eight months remaining, wasn't going to be discussed until the fall. She noted the “steady buzz” that the NCTA was looking for new leadership.

With Robert leaving after five years in the job, the NCTA is now in transition. Like him, it has some inner conflicts. The place can't decide whether it is a public-relations firm with a legal division, or a law firm with a PR division.

That problem can be fixed, provided the next NCTA president isn't another Sybil.