Now begins the name game.
After five years in the hot seat, Robert Sachs last Monday resigned as president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, citing burnout from his Boston-to-Washington commute and other unspecified personal reasons.
Sachs, a 55-year-old lawyer with a quarter-century of service to the cable industry, is expected to remain at the NCTA helm until a successor has been chosen, later this year or in early 2005.
“Although I'll look forward to having more time in the future for other things in my life, for the immediate future I plan to remain fully focused on cable-industry interests,” Sachs said in his June 18 resignation letter to Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt, who is NCTA's executive committee chairman.
As soon as Sachs revealed his plans, the spotlight moved to the roster of names said to be in the running for the NCTA's top job. The competition should be fierce, as the position pays $1.3 million per year and comes with lots of perks, including a car and driver and access to a luxury apartment in downtown D.C.
Whenever the NCTA presidency opens, the candidate pool tends to consist of members of Congress about to retire and cable-industry insiders with experience toiling in the political vineyards.
This time is no different. Speculation was rampant that Victoria (Torie) Clarke — the former Pentagon spokeswoman who led the NCTA public-relations team in the mid-1990s — is the leading candidate.
Another industry insider given a good shot was David Krone. He is the NCTA's executive vice president and a former acolyte of ex-AT&T Broadband/Tele-Communications Inc. chief Leo Hindery, whom Sachs actually hired twice to be his No. 2.
As far as the pickings on Capitol Hill, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) — both retiring this year — are considered strong possibilities, along with Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.).
Former Rep. Tom Tauke (R-Iowa), now the top D.C. lobbyist for Verizon Communications Inc., was also mentioned as a person respected by many cable leaders.
Britt said the executive committee would discuss plans “this summer” to hire an outside search firm to vet suitable candidates. He said he would appoint a special search committee of the NCTA board to monitor the process. But the process would not “get fully underway” until late September, he added.
It appears, then, that the selection of a new NCTA head will likely occur after the Nov. 2 election. That will allow the trade group to find someone simpatico with the new Kerry administration, or pick someone prominent from the Bush administration looking to rejoin the private sector.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card (whose sister-in-law, Lorine Card, is a Washington lobbyist for Comcast Corp.) is a big name from the Bush administration who has surfaced before as a potential cable-industry hire.
If history is any guide, the NCTA board's bias has been toward a middle-aged white male Democrat whose knowledge of the cable industry was assigned greater importance than his government experience.
“My guess is, that's where they will end up again,” an industry source said.
Michael Willner, president and CEO of Insight Communications Co., said media speculation about Sachs's replacement should be ignored.
“It is absolutely ridiculous at this stage of the game to be speculating. There is no accuracy in any of these names, because we haven't met yet,” said Willner, an NCTA executive committee member with Britt.
DID HE QUIT?
It's not clear whether Sachs quit or was fired.
Sachs and his board members played a game of chicken: They wouldn't renew his contract, and he wouldn't tell them that he wanted it renewed. By contrast, his first contract was renewed in August 2001, well before its December 2002 expiration.
Willner, who negotiated Sachs's first extension when he was NCTA chairman, dismissed ideas that the trade group's board wanted Sachs gone.
“Robert is out because Robert wants to be out. He wants to go back to a normal life,” Willner said.
Sachs has homes in Boston and Cape Cod and an apartment at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington. Evidently, the grind of shuttling between locales began to take its toll.
“I think Robert was genuinely tired of, and frustrated with, the commute. It's a pain in the ass flying back and forth to Boston,” an industry source said.
Some in the cable industry told a different story. Some were disappointed that Sachs had negative relationships with some NCTA employees, that he failed to build strong ties with key lawmakers and that he was too passive in dealing with D.C.'s many cable bashers.
One source, who asked not to be named, related that Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) wouldn't discuss cable issues with Sachs or allow him to appear before his panel.
“I don't think Robert had a strong relationship with McCain of any kind,” a cable source said. “My clear impression is that the most vocal concerns raised about Robert came from Cox [Communications Inc.].”
PRAISE FROM COX
If Cox was pleased Sachs is gone, the company wasn't letting on. Cox CEO Jim Robbins, who declined an interview, issued an effusive statement.
“I have worked with Robert for more than 25 years and I can say with confidence that the industry will sorely miss him,” Robbins said. “Filling his shoes will be a difficult job.”
Sachs declined an interview, saying his letter to Britt and an accompanying June 21 press release should be sufficient.
In Washington, success is often measured not by what was gained but by what wasn't lost.
By that standard, Sachs was a huge success. During his tenure, neither Congress nor the FCC took steps designed to punish cable operators, despite negative lobbying campaigns funded by cable MSO opponents.
The Walt Disney Co., for example, joined forces with the computer and Internet industries in a futile quest to obtain FCC rules requiring cable operators to ensure their high-speed data network didn't discriminate against content rivals.
“[Sachs] single-handedly held off a coalition that included us, Microsoft, Intel — I mean, the world,” said Disney lobbyist Preston Padden. “I think it was a proactive agenda to have the government not regulating their cable modems.”
Padden had high praise for Sachs as a leader and person, even though Disney — a member of the NCTA as a programmer — complicated Sachs's job by lobbying against his group. For example, Disney now favors regulating cable programming for indecency.
“NCTA and Disney have not always seen eye-to-eye on every issue, but I have enormous respect for Robert and what he has accomplished,” Padden said. “This is me being straight and sincere.”
On Sachs's watch, top cable companies reached an agreement with the consumer electronics industry on standards for cable-ready digital television sets, which the FCC embraced.
In response to indecency concerns, Sachs obtained industry consensus on providing free blocking technologies to cable subscribers that request them. That was a step that assuaged some foes of TV raunch on Capitol Hill.
Sachs can also take credit for the fact that in his time, Congress and the FCC lost interest in forcing cable to sell wholesale broadband access to competing Internet-service providers.
Sachs made that point in his letter to Britt. The irony was that Britt's Time Warner Cable is the only U.S. cable company that must comply with open-access mandates, imposed by the Federal Trade Commission in approving parent Time Warner Inc.'s merger with America Online Inc. four years ago.
To say that Sachs produced an unblemished record would be incorrect. One day after he resigned, the Senate passed a bill regulating cable for violence that included fines of $3 million. That caused one cable lobbyist to wonder whether Congress and the FCC might try to take advantage of a lame-duck NCTA president.
In 2002, the FCC extended program-access rules for another five years despite Sachs's vocal objections.
And both Congress and the FCC are considering slapping cable with a la carte programming requirements, a policy prescription that Sachs is trying to block.
Lastly, cable's immunity from Internet open-access mandates could be short-lived. NCTA is hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that potentially exposes cable operators to common-carrier regulation.
CABLE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The next NCTA president will have to cope with a lot of legacy issues. But cable's biggest threat over the next two years is interest on Capitol Hill in overhauling the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with a focus on regulation of cable's most promising new product: voice-over-Internet protocol telephone service.
According to one cable source, given the road ahead, the NCTA presidency is no place for amateurs.
“If you are facing a year or two of hearings and markups, do you want someone in that job who is getting on-the-job training?” the source asked. “The cable industry right now cannot afford to have someone in that job who doesn't have both a technical grounding and an understanding of the politics of the business.”