News that the Cable Telecommunications Association (CATA)
was talking about folding itself into the National Cable Television Association elicited
mixed feelings in the industry last week.
Executives reacted solemnly, but realistically, to the
prospect that a long-time cable institution could soon vanish.
"As sad as I am to see it go," said Robert
Gessner, vice president at Massillon Cable TV in Massillon, Ohio, "I understand.
Nobody wants to pay two sets of dues."
One industry consultant agreed that in any industry,
"a lot of members are always saying, `Why do we have to pay dues to multiple
associations?' Members tend to like fewer associations."
CATA, which had long ago ceded its lobbying focus to a
member-service regime, was no further along last week in its assessment of how to go
Most operators and industry insiders were torn between
wanting to see CATA thrive and acknowledging the cold reality that the industry may be
changing too fast to support two associations.
"We need the best representation we can get,"
said James Fitzpatrick, who runs his own small system in Whitesville, N.Y. "So
whatever that covers, I'm for it."
For Michael Burrus, the president of Multimedia Cablevision
and vice chairman of the CATA board, the strategic review under way is difficult.
He's also on the board of the NCTA.
"CATA has brought a value to the whole industry -- not
just [to] small and independent operators," he said. "What I think they've
brought is an independent way of looking at issues. If any sort of merger or
reorganization takes place, that's what I hope we can in some form retain access
Of course, a merger with the NCTA isn't yet certain.
"Certainly, NCTA gets the most prominent play as an
option, but I think [CATA president] Steve Effros has an opportunity," Burrus said.
"Steve may choose to set up his own law firm or consulting firm."
Such a firm could -- under a different name -- fulfill many
of the same functions now covered by CATA, essentially switching a dues structure for a
consulting-fee structure, some executives speculated.
Regardless of where the reorganization leads, Washington
insiders were still somewhat shocked by the news last week. Even adversaries in lobbying
groups that are often at odds with the cable industry's positions had mixed feelings
-- none of which they were willing to share on the record.
One official at a rival lobbying firm joked, "Steve
was great to have around. He always gave us something to shoot at."
Another lobbyist remarked, "Steve was able to be a lot
more vocal, and a lot more rough-and-tumble, than NCTA could ever be. NCTA tends to be
Ken Johnson, a staffer in the office of House
Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), said that although he
often heard from CATA on cable issues, the NCTA always spent more time on Capitol Hill.
"When you think of the cable industry in Washington,
D.C., you think of [NCTA president] Decker Anstrom," Johnson said. Still, he said,
CATA has fulfilled important educational functions.
And for CATA, the lack of a presence in Congress and at the
FCC has been part of its identity as the "independent" voice.
Said Washington-area telecom analyst Gary Arlen,
"Steve always handled the nerd stuff, the technology. He likes it. He's
fascinated with it. He spends a lot of time on the Internet."
But in the end, Arlen said, the vacuum left by CATA may be
hard to fill because "CATA does great member services, and Effros is sort of the
designated hitter on that."
Quietly, some small operators were grumbling about the
prospect of losing CATA. One small operator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted
that the involvement of programmers in the NCTA's ranks has always diluted its focus
on operator-specific issues.
"With the programmers involved, it's a real
difference of objectives," the operator said. "The programmers are serving our
competitors, and they're taking advantage of the whole situation."
John Seiver, a Washington cable lawyer at Cole, Raywid, and
Braverman, said CATA -- and especially industry veterans like Effros and CATA vice
president Jim Ewalt -- would be sorely missed.
"I hope they can stay active in the industry," he
said. "NCTA -- being as big and all-encompassing as it is -- just has so many
obligations. ... Steve could always kind of pick and choose what issues to get involved
in. But I don't think CATA could have done it themselves, without the NCTA watching
Many sources speculated that the much-improved reputation
of the NCTA in Washington since Anstrom took the reins has helped fuel talk of folding
CATA under its wing. Still, others say it's a bittersweet reality.
"CATA's been a great value for the benefit
we've received," said Multimedia's Burrus. "It's been a
tremendous organization, and one that we haven't minded at all supporting with our
dollars. We feel like we've gotten every bit of value back out of it."