When Robert Sachs worked for Continental Cablevision, MSO chief Amos Hostetter often didn't allow him to attend the National Show. Sachs, now the CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, hopes that operators aren't as frugal at next week's convention in Chicago. Multichannel News National Editor Steve Donohue sat down with Sachs recently for a wide-ranging interview. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: The NCTA has repeatedly said that it doesn't want Congress to solve disputes between operators and programmers. What did you think when [Cablevision Systems chairman] Chuck Dolan went to [Sen.] John McCain's panel recently with a list of legislative reforms?
Robert Sachs: The consistent position of NCTA has been and remains that commercial disputes or disagreements are best worked out between the parties without resorting to government. That certainly was the case with the Cablevision-YES [Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network] dispute in New York, and we continue to believe that that's the right course. Individual companies are always free to express their views, but this industry believes that it is a mistake to invite government into your business, because it can lead to all sorts of unintended results. So while I have tremendous respect for Chuck Dolan, the views he expressed were his, and not the views of the cable industry or the NCTA board.
MCN: So you would be opposed to any type of legislation that would mandate a la carte offerings or a mandate that any network that costs more than $1 be offered a la carte?
MCN: Did the proximity of the Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers' Cable-Tec Expo hurt National Show exhibit sales this year?
Sachs: I don't believe that's had an impact. Their audience tends to be regional and field-engineering people, and companies that are displaying bucket trucks and amplification equipment. There's less of an emphasis on some of the major technologies that you'll see at the National Show.
MCN: There's been talk that the NCTA wants the SCTE to run its show in conjunction with yours next year.
Sachs: There have been no discussions that I'm aware of on that subject.
MCN: But there was an effort within the last couple of years to try to get other organizations to help create a bigger National Show …
Sachs: Two years ago, we talked with [Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president] Char [Beales] and [SCTE president] John [Clark], and with others, about where there might be synergies in putting on shows. And so out of that has come such things as the CTAM Broadband Opportunities Conference.
This year, CableLabs [Cable Television Laboratories Inc.] has taken responsibility for the HDTV Pavilion at the National Show, which is the first time that CableLabs will provide a formal role in the show.
MCN: Is it more difficult for the NCTA to attract both exhibitors and attendees with all of the consolidation and fewer operators attending the show?
Sachs: Consolidation is one factor, but the larger factor here is the general economy and business travel. If you look at Comdex, which was the biggest show of its kind, since Sept. 11, and all of the after effects in the economy, they're off by 40 or 50% from their peak, which was a couple of hundred thousand. And we've had a similar experience over the last two or three years.
There is consolidation, so companies are going to send a certain number of senior executives and managers, but they're not going to send everybody, and that makes a lot of sense.
MCN: What percentage of the NCTA's revenue comes from the National Show?
Sachs: I'm not sure that we've ever put out that figure. But most of our budget is generated through membership dues.
MCN: Has the NCTA taken any steps to help Spencer Kaitz run the Kaitz Foundation?
Sachs: I had lunch with Spencer recently. I don't recall whether he bought or I bought. I personally go back 20 years and consider him a good friend, but he really looks to his board for guidance more than he does to me personally, as to directions he should take the foundation.
MCN: We heard that you did want to take a more active role in helping to run the Kaitz Foundation, but that Spencer Kaitz said no.
Sachs: That's absolutely incorrect. We've offered to help in any way with the logistics on the dinner and that sort of thing. While we'll do everything possible to support Kaitz, I have no desire to absorb Kaitz.
MCN: Do you find it unusual that we have no Kaitz honoree at this late date?
Sachs: No. It's been a transition year for the foundation. As to when they'll announce the program or the honoree, I leave it up to them.
MCN: Are you relieved that [Comcast Corp. CEO] Brian Roberts is running the former AT&T Broadband systems?
Sachs: It's great to have those systems back in cable hands.
MCN: Should NCTA take a more active role in settling disputes between operators and programmers, or are you being more active behind the scenes?
Sachs: As a trade association, we can't involve ourselves in individual contract negotiations. But I have lots of conversations with lots of member companies about the public debate that takes place surrounding some private contractual negotiations. And I do find that while frustration levels may be high at times, given where somebody is in their negotiations, at the end of the day the vast majority of these disagreements are resolved.
MCN: Do you remember when your first National Show was?
Sachs: I was a congressional staffer — it would have been about 25 years ago. My first show was actually in Chicago, it was at the Hilton, and the entire convention took place within the hotel. There wasn't a McCormick Center, there wasn't acres of exhibit space. It was probably attended by maybe 1,000 people.
MCN: You were at Continental during some of those early shows?
Sachs: I joined Continental in '79, and Amos [Hostetter] was always frugal, so he didn't let a lot of us go to trade shows. I did attend over the course of the years a number of NCTA shows, but I didn't go every year in those early years.