Once Decker Anstrom fully understood the meaning of “truck chasers” as a youngster, his fascination with cable television only grew.
Though politics was Anstrom’s first passion, that interest in cable was never out-of-mind. “I remember being a truck chaser, which was a person who chased the cable-TV truck down the street to see how they could get the service,” he recalled. “People wanted a choice, and that’s what cable brought. That’s when I knew I wanted to be in the business.”
Cable would have to wait, however, until Anstrom fully experienced life in the political sector. Anstrom began developing public policy during the Carter administration, at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
“I’ve always been interested in international and domestic policy, and that’s where I wanted to be, starting in Health, Education and Welfare,” he said. “Both my parents were teachers and we routinely talked about politics.”
Anstrom’s political career brightened further when he became a senior staff member in the Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President, where he helped create the U.S. Department of Education. It was that position that led to his tenure as an assistant director to the White House Office of Presidential Personnel in 1978 during the Carter Administration, where he handled presidential appointments to the cabinet and other senior political posts.
And though unbeknownst to Anstrom, it was the invaluable experience he gained in these positions that would later serve him well as both executive vice president and eventually CEO of the National Cable Television Association (now the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), beginning in 1987 and spanning the critical years leading up to the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. (He retired from the NCTA post in 1999.)
“The four-year period leading up to the ’96 Act was extremely important,” he said. “We needed to keep the industry together during that difficult time and remain unified or our opponents would pick us apart, and there were a few who weren’t interested in building the industry.
“But the industry regrouped and unified to develop a pro-competitive position, which led to the ’96 Telecommunications Act. It was the blueprint for the reinvention of the cable industry.”
And not only a blueprint for the industry, but confirmation of Anstrom’s political and personal skills. “His ability to take a problem and bring two sides together to forge a common position is a unique leadership skill. That’s what he was able to do during the Cable Act process,” said Bob Miron, chairman and CEO of Advance/Newhouse Communications, the parent of cable operator Bright House Networks. “He also was able to forge an act that encouraged investment in new things to grow the business.”
Investment indeed. Since passage of the ’96 Telecommunications Act, hundreds of billions of dollars have been put towards plant upgrades, new technologies and services. It took a concerted effort on the part of the cable industry, and the leadership skills of Anstrom, however, to make it happen.
“His time at NCTA really brought him the respect of the industry,” Miron added.
“All we wanted was to compete, and in exchange the phone companies could enter the cable industry,” said Anstrom. “It was a very tough debate and took a leap of faith. But after the leaders of the cable industry like John Malone, Jim Robbins, Bob Miron, Glenn Jones and others met and had a real gut check, we left with absolute unanimity. That was cable’s leadership at its best.”
And for Anstrom, it was a defining moment in his career. “He led us during those years and laid the groundwork for the industry to expand into data and open up a great deal of investments into plant upgrades,” said Miron. “He brought about a harmonious time not only at NCTA, but for the industry.”
Anstrom also felt that the cable industry had a responsibility to the American people following passage of the Telecommunications Act. “We had been given a great opportunity and needed to give something back,” he said. “That’s when the industry decided to give all schools high-speed Internet connections. It was the right thing to do and was special for me since my parents were both teachers.”
It also spurred him to contribute his time and skills to other organizations as chairman of the NCTA’s Programmers Committee, past Chairman of The Walter Kaitz Foundation Board of Trustees and past vice chairman of the Board of Directors of the Cable TV Advertising Bureau.
Anstrom also sits on the Boards of Directors for WHRO (Hampton Roads Public Television and Radio) and the Chrysler Museum of Art.
In 2002, he became president and chief operating officer of Landmark Communications, Inc., where he continues to deftly use his negotiating and interpersonal skills, which was an opportunity to extend his cable career.
“The transition to Landmark after the NCTA and The Weather Channel (he serves as chairman of TWC, which is owned by Landmark) was great. It allowed me the opportunity to join a company that spans several platforms — wireless, cable and others — and to make a difference in peoples’ lives,” he explained.
Yet for this newly inducted Hall of Famer, it’s his NCTA days that will be most remembered, and will likely define his cable career.
“The NCTA deserves great admiration and appreciation for their performance during the passage of the ’96 Act,” he said. “It was extraordinary, and showed what the industry could do. We admitted past mistakes and moved on. It was a great time and I made many friends.”
And what of the Hall of Fame honor? “I’m just very privileged to be joining an extraordinary, diverse group that makes this industry work,” Anstrom said.