Small Ops’ Man in Washington: A Look at ACA Chief Matt Polka

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Matthew Polka has worn many hats during his career, including working briefly as a journalist. He had given up on engineering when he flunked a calculus course taught — in an ironic twist — by his future father-in-law.

Later on, while aspiring to be a trial lawyer like Perry Mason (as Polka put it), he wound up practicing corporate law. But the job that best prepared Polka for his current role, as president and CEO of the American Cable Association, was his stint at Star Cable Associates.

Polka was a small cable operator, and he feels his former peers’ pain.

According to many ACA members, Polka’s passion, missionary zeal and empathy — along with his doggedness, smarts and political savvy — have helped transform the ACA during the past few years into a successful — and controversial — lobbying group for small, independent cable operators.

“They’re a very effective organization,” said Decker Anstrom, president of Landmark Communications Inc. and former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. “There was a period of time when people sort of underestimated the small operators, and I think they’ve proven that they are a very formidable force.”

It’s hard to separate Polka, who just last month was promoted to his CEO title, from the ACA.

“We have said for a long time if we lost Matt, we’d lose the organization,” said Buford Media partner and CEO Ben Hooks.

Working under Polka’s leadership, from its unlikely headquarters in Pittsburgh, the ACA during the past few years has made more and more gains on behalf of its membership — comprised of roughly 1,000 cable companies serving more than 8 million subscribers in all 50 states.

The David-vs.-Goliath analogy, clichéd as it is, fits: Every day, Polka and the ACA are battling global media titans like The Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. over programming issues, from a la carte to license-fee increases to retransmission consent to bundling.

But Polka and the ACA have managed to gain the ear of policymakers, and gain traction against the programming giants.

“ACA, and Matt Polka, really, is a key advocate for the small-cable industry,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said in an interview last week. “Without them, the unique needs of these smaller companies wouldn’t get the attention that they deserve here at the commission.”

Perhaps the best example of the ACA making its voice heard occurred late last year, when the FCC set forth a number of strict conditions — all meant to protect cable operators — for News Corp. to meet in order to acquire DirecTV Inc.

It was a milestone, as far as Polka was concerned.

“Now you have on record a federal government agency saying, 'Yes, these entities — when they become so big — can wield conduct that is anti-competitive,’ ” Polka said. “So that for us was one of the first major victories.”

These kinds of “victories,” however, don’t have everyone celebrating. Polka’s approach — with its grassroots lobbying of lawmakers and regulators in Washington for help on programming-related issues — has drawn fire from both networks and from some large MSOs.

Privately, some programmers accuse Polka of spewing rhetoric, and fear that the kind of “flexibility” the ACA is advocating in terms of how networks are carried would destroy their business model.

Mainly, the ACA’s critics claim the group is courting disaster when it turns to the Hill for relief. Last year, a top Comcast Corp. official addressed an ACA meeting, urging caution about lobbying for government action on issues like a la carte.

BEWARE 'THE CURE’

“If I had a concern about ACA — and again, I have great respect for Matt and his team, I think they’re thoughtful, they’re creative, they’ve been extraordinarily effective advocates for their clients — I’m just by nature, and I think by experience, less willing to ask Washington for help,” Anstrom said. “The cure you get from Washington is often worse than the malady.”

Polka, 45 years old, couldn’t disagree more.

“The fact of the matter is the government is already involved,” Polka said. “All you have to do is watch the hearings and watch the headlines. … They’ve been involved every year when they come out and complain about the cable industry and [retail] rate increase after rate increase.”

As Polka sees it, “the genie is out of the bottle and that thing is not going to go back in.”

Making strides on programming issues is crucial to the ACA’s members, many of them mom-and-pop operations in a fight for survival against direct-broadcast satellite providers.

Polka believes his membership and their systems, many of which are in rural areas, are performing a noble task: bringing the Internet, digital video and broadband to the isolated heartland.

“They really have done a good job of getting broadband out to more rural and smaller markets,” Adelstein said. “That’s something we need to applaud and encourage.

“They definitely do their part in bridging the digital divide and we want to see them succeed and make sure they don’t get overwhelmed in the world of giant-media multinational conglomerates.”

Polka sees it as a populist mission.

“He believes,” said Rhod Shaw, a partner and president of the Alpine Group, the ACA’s lobbying consultant in Washington. “It’s a cause. There is a psychological component to this for him. He does believe that what the members are asking for and what they need is good policy, it’s good for the country, it’s good for consumers.”

Polka has shown himself willing to make a personal sacrifice for the cause.

“He’s so passionate,” Hooks recalled. “He has actually said: 'If you’re running tight, start with me. Don’t give me a raise.’ ”

STAR CABLE VP

Polka knows about small operators’ problems first-hand. After his brief tenure as a reporter — and later working for a law firm in Pittsburgh — he took a job as vice president and general counsel for Star Cable, which at its peak had 82,000 subscribers in states including Ohio, Mississippi and Louisiana.

From 1990 to 1997, Polka’s role included handling all of Star’s legal matters and, in some cases, negotiating carriage deals.

During this period, he sat across the negotiating table from young affiliate-sales representatives like ESPN’s Sean Bratches, who has since risen to be named president of Disney and ESPN Networks Affiliate Sales and Marketing.

“Some of my best friends are programmers, as they say,” Polka said. “I say that in jest, but I’ve been fortunate. I’ve got the chance to know a lot of these guys. So for me it’s not, 'Those darn programmers again.’ It’s about the issues.”

Small operators like Polka got a rude awakening when Congress passed rate reregulation in 1992. There was a feeling that the NCTA, representing both MSOs and programmers, had failed to lobby hard enough on behalf of the specific needs of small operators.

KINLEY AND SBCA

“We were all scared to death, right after the first 600 pages of the rate regulations came out around April of ’93,” recalled David Kinley, president of Sun Country Cable and Kinley & Associates, a consulting firm. “Small operators at that point felt that, to put it nicely, they had not had their story told adequately and that there was a lot of frustration that the debate was framed by the large operators without any consideration for the impact on the small operators. We were tired of relying on the paid professionals at NCTA to tell our story.”

The NCTA declined to comment for this story, and representatives for ESPN and News Corp. couldn’t be reached for comment.

After an emergency meeting, these small cable operators formed a volunteer group, the Small Cable Business Association, in May 1993 to represent their own interests in Washington. Kinley chaired it for several years.

But after the 1996 Cable Act, the SCBA — later renamed the ACA — wanted to hire a full-time chief and staff. Polka threw his hat into the ring, and became the group’s first president in May 1997.

“While many people have predicted we’d be by the wayside, we’ve kept going,” Polka said.

He still points to the 1992 Cable Act when he makes his case for being active in Washington.

“It’s very shortsighted for any company to think this is going to blow over,” Polka said. “That’s what happened to us in ’92. We weren’t involved as independent businesses and we almost got regulated out of business. That’s when we got involved. We don’t want that to happen again.”

YEARS WERE NEEDED

Polka, who now spends about one-third to half of his time in Washington, warned the ACA’s board right off the bat that it would take him years to build relationships with lawmakers and regulators in Washington, getting meetings with FCC commissioners.

“There is just no substitute for shoe leather,” Polka said. “You’ve got to spend the time, which we’ve done, just walking the halls, visiting the people, getting to know them, helping to make your case and just developing those relationships.

“Not that that means that people will do something for you someday, but just that they know we’re in the whole mix of ideas when it comes time to do something.”

A strategic alliance struck back in 2000 with the National Cable Television Cooperative, a buying group for small operators, boosted the ACA’s membership to more than 1,000 from 300.

As a result, the association now has a footprint that covers the majority of congressional districts in every state, increasing its clout in Washington.

Polka’s strategy, in part, has been to have actual small, rural operators come to Washington, D.C., for face-to-face visits with lawmakers.

100 ON A BUS

“You can write letters and send e-mails ’til you’re blue in the face,” but it makes a difference when you appear in person, according to Steven Befera, president of Range Broadband in Hibbing. Minn. He participated in the annual Washington Summit in May, when the ACA gathered and bused 100 members to the Hill to meet with their respective legislators.

“I was really impressed with how the whole event was organized,” he said. “Matt was really the triggerman on that.”

Apart from his hard work and grassroots support, Polka has built a savvy triumvirate that includes the Alpine Group and attorney Chris Cinnamon of the Chicago firm Cinnamon Mueller.

“Matt, I kind of view as the quarterback who calls the play, figures out what he wants and then in the regulatory arena, Cinnamon Mueller takes care of that and in the legislative arena, The Alpine Group takes care of that,” Alpine’s Shaw said. “That said, our huddles are very information exchange-heavy.”

Shaw and ACA members credit Polka’s modest, honest style with working wonders in Washington.

NOT OVERLY STRIDENT

“He has made ACA overperform its assets,” Shaw said. “He has been aggressive in pushing his message, and soft in delivering it. And that’s very important because if he’d been overly strident, the group could have been discounted … Or if he’d been too soft, we would have been lost in the clutter.”

Cinnamon credited Polka’s courage for the ACA’s success.

“We take on Disney, News Corp., Viacom and they are powerful and tough and skilled and very good at what they do,” Cinnamon said. “Matt and his team is a match for that, as the recent success has laid out.”

NCTC president Mike Pandzik said that in the Washington arena, Polka and the ACA have an advantage over the NCTA because they only represent operators, not “manufacturers and distributors,” meaning programmers and cable operators.

“They [the ACA] have more clout and credibility than their size and budget might ordinarily suggest because of their single-mindedness,” Pandzik said.

Polka’s manner with people also goes a long way, according to his colleagues.

“Matt is maybe the most kind person I’ve ever met, and that shows up in a million ways in his business,” Shaw said.

While everyone is always kind and deferential to policymakers, “Matt is always kind to the secretary, the scheduler, the junior-junior-junior staffer who is in the meeting,” according to Shaw. “It says volumes about the man.”

SNAPS WITH AIDES

When the ACA meets with congressmen, Polka will have a picture taken not only with the lawmaker, but with his or her aide, which he sends to that staffer as a thank you.

“Those things go a long way, because as a staffer, I worked up there [on the Hill] 11 years, and I didn’t have people going out of their way to frame a picture of me to say, 'Thank you for helping,’ ” Shaw said. “And Matt does those kinds of things all the time. His trail of good will is honest. It’s not a shtick. That trail of good will really allows him to overachieve.”

Kinley recalled that back in late 1998, Polka came to visit him on ACA business at his system in California. Just after Polka left to go back to Pittsburgh, Kinley’s former partner, Lynn Simpson, died.

“Matt was on the next plane back for the funeral, which was within 48 hours,” Kinley said. “And he sang in the funeral and spoke. It always impressed me that he had just been out here, just got back and he got back on a plane. But there is no question he was gong to that. It shows his dedication to personal relationships. That’s a major reason for success of ACA.”

BARBERSHOP SINGER

Polka said that barbershop singing is “one of my loves.” Several years ago, when Anstrom was a speaker at an ACA meeting, Polka cashed in frequent-flyer miles to fly in members of his barbershop quartet, planting them in Anstrom’s audience. When Polka introduced Anstrom, the singers interrupted, breaking into song.

“It was one of the more memorable introductions that I ever had, that’s for sure,” Anstrom said. “It was just so much fun to see Matt in another life with these friends of his who obviously had nothing to do with cable law and regulation. They had lyrics about me and The Weather Channel.

“He’s a very good singer, I might point out.”

Hooks said that he holds Polka “at a higher level” of esteem than anyone in the industry.

“I’d be shocked if you ever found anyone talk against Matt, unless it was a programmer,” Hooks said. “But I think they have a lot of respect for the man.”

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