Washington— For the victim, meeting the press can feel more like a pressing of the meat.
But media carnivores last Thursday were gentle in their first session with Kyle McSlarrow, who invited a group of reporters to lunch so he could outline where he’s heading as the new president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
McSlarrow, 44, begins March 1 in a job that makes him the industry’s chief spokesman in Washington, D.C., and its behind-the-scenes magician who has to manage the delicate coexistence between cable operators and programmers in public policy squalls.
“I am an optimist. This is an organization that has already proven that it is capable of hanging together in an effective way,” McSlarrow said. “Putting the two of them together is where I want to be.”
The two-hour session covered a range of topics, with McSlarrow fielding questions designed to test his cable acumen and others intended to daub some color onto the official portrait of a career Washington insider who just landed one of the highest-paying lobbying jobs in the city.
McSlarrow arrived in professional Washington attire: dark blue pinstriped suit, blue shirt and understated tie with bars of navy and crimson.
His only concession to status: a pair of presidential cuff links.
A lawyer who has twice run for Congress and testified before congressional committees on important matters, McSlarrow is no rookie when it comes to issuing statements for public consumption. He’s a careful speaker, but not to the point where he just offers vanilla responses.
ADMITTED CABLE ROOKIE
He was frank and honest about his newness to the cable industry and the steep learning curve ahead. But he said he’s prepared.
“I love to take a risk. I like challenges. I like tough projects,” he said. “There are all the particular legal, regulatory, historical and cultural realities of issues that affect cable that I am just going to have to learn.”
McSlarrow joins the NCTA after four years at the Department of Energy, first as chief of staff and later as deputy secretary.
For a time, he was in the running for Energy Secretary. Once that was no longer an option, he began to look outside government and consider offers that already started coming in.
When cable came calling, he was immediately intrigued.
'YES, I’M INTERESTED’
“This is the only one I actually interviewed for,” he said. “When they called me about this job, it just clicked. I said, 'Yes, I’m interested.’ ”
A few years ago, McSlarrow contacted NCTA president Robert Sachs about a senior position, but the slot had just been filled. He said he had been drawn to cable then because of his growing interest in broadband issues and the Internet.
“One of the things I actually did was that I cold called Robert to see if there might be a match,” he said.
In his most recent meetings with NCTA officials, McSlarrow said the hard issues were addressed.
“I asked the question, 'Are you at all concerned about the fact that I don’t know beans about cable?’ ” he said. The answer back, he said, was: “We think you have the tools.”
McSlarrow recalled that members of the NCTA search committee said he was the kind of person who “could pull it all together” despite his unfamiliarity with cable details.
“They sold me on this job. They sold me because they obviously worked well together,” he said.
As a consumer, McSlarrow was sold on cable long ago. His home in Northern Virginia is equipped with the latest in cable technology, courtesy of Cox Communications Inc.
“They love me because of the cable modem. I’ve got HD digital coming in,” he said, adding that a Panasonic plasma display TV rests “over the mantle, to my wife’s chagrin.”
“We got cable telephone and we have DVR. In Cox’s case, I think video-on-demand comes out later this year in Fairfax. So, I’m waiting around for that.”
SCI FI CHANNEL FAN
For a public-policy professional, McSlarrow surprised some by not instantly disclosing unyielding affection for C-SPAN.
“My favorite night of the week is Friday night, so I can watch Stargate [SG-1], Stargate Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica” on the Sci Fi channel, he offered.
With Congress poised to move digital-TV legislation and possibly rewrite the Telecommunications Act of 1996, McSlarrow has big issues in front of him.
He also might have to fend off attempts to impose indecency fines on cable networks and scuttle moves to require the a la carte sale of programming.
“We have a huge public-policy debate that’s going on now and that’s only going to heat up,” he said.
But Capitol Hill is hardly alien terrain for McSlarrow, who worked as an aide to Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when each was majority leader. He was also chief of staff to late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.)
“I know how the process works. Yeah, I know people. Knowing people doesn’t get you anything in this town. You still have to be an advocate,” he said.
As a father of three boys, McSlarrow said he had given thought to potential problems cable might face over the sale of adult programming.
“I don’t want them watching a lot of stuff that’s on TV,” he said.
But cable’s defense against the content police, he said, is that adults volunteer to subscribe to cable and they have the technical means to block programming that they consider inappropriate for children.
“One of the things I thought about and quickly became comfortable with is that what I like about cable is that people can control that,” he said. “I am not comfortable any time the government starts getting into spaces and starts dictating content.”
WIFE IS LOBBYIST
McSlarrow also addressed an issue close to home. His wife, Allison, is a lobbyist with a client list that has included some cable antagonists.
Although she hasn’t closed shop, she has already agreed to drop clients that would take a stand against the NCTA to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“Once I made a decision that I was going to do this job, we are a pro-cable household and that’s the way we are going to be,” he said.
“I wanted to be able to talk to her about what I do and vice versa and neither one of us was comfortable ever really having to answer that kind of question.”
In the weeks ahead, McSlarrow said he planned to prepare for the National Show in San Francisco in early April. He also intends to conduct a strategic review to determine whether the NCTA’s assets are being properly deployed. He said a change in leadership was “the natural time” to engage in such a review.
He said he wasn’t about to make wholesale changes, a point he made to NCTA staff when he met them in late January.
“Nonetheless, we’ll take stock,” he said. “I’m going to be questioning people. I’m going to be questioning policy.”
The NCTA, he said, has a solid reputation with capable and dedicated employees. But he said he would not “be afraid to make a change, if necessary.”