Who’ll Steer the NCTA?

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There’s an undertow of unease tugging at cable’s biggest confab, the National Show, which returns to muggy New Orleans this week. For the first time in five years, a perfect storm is brewing in Washington, with regulators zoning in on three related issues: cable rate increases, a la carte tiers and indecency.

The show is intended to be a stage to dazzle Washington and Wall Street with stories of how cable is bringing this country to the forefront of the telecommunications revolution.

But that message could get lost in the din. Consider the backdrop of this volatile year: The cable industry, which has dodged regulatory bullets, is again in the crossfire. Just like the issue of gay marriage — a deliberate distraction by this administration to sidestep the sorry mess in Iraq — cable rate hikes, a la carte and indecency could become Christmas tree ornaments to some boneheaded bill.

That, in a nutshell, is the political backdrop facing National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs, whose contract expires at year’s end. There’s been a steady buzz that Sachs won’t be leading the NCTA next year, even though nothing untoward has happened under his watch. Sachs remains mum about his plans.

Instead, he says his job is to remain vigilant until Congress goes into recess in October. Coincidentally, that’s about the time frame in which Sachs and his executive steering committee will sit down and discuss his future. A lot will depend on who wins the presidential race.

And that has created an interesting question: Should there be some sort of a term limit for the top NCTA job? Some people on the trade group’s board privately say yes. Jack Valenti, who has led the Motion Picture Association of America since 1966, has been pushed aside. Reportedly, there’s a short list of replacements for his job, including former NCTA spokesperson Torie Clarke, who now works part time for the nation’s largest MSO, Comcast Corp. Some folks believe she is the heir apparent for Sachs’s job, although she says that’s not so.

The National Association of Broadcasters — an organization that Eddie Fritts has led for 20 years — is having its share of tumult, with many members bailing out.

Perhaps the warmongering at the other association might explain why the idea of a term limit for the NCTA top job has surfaced, and so might Sachs’s silence.

Sachs has been on the job since August 1999. His first three-year contract was to expire at the end of 2002, but the NCTA announced a contract extension in August of 2001, well in advance of the expiration date. But that was done in a nonthreatening regulatory environment — unlike now.

When Sachs took the NCTA job, he basically told the association he didn’t want to become a lifer. The NCTA has not set up a search committee or hired a headhunter, yet. Frankly, the industry deserves to know who’ll be lobbying on its behalf at this critical juncture. To many, the silence is mystifying.

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