When Kyle McSlarrow joined the NCTA as president and CEO in March 2005, it was one month before the organization’s annual National Show. While anything but a lightweight, his role as deputy secretary and COO of the Department of Energy didn’t directly prepare him for his new job. Two years later, McSlarrow, a Republican, finds himself dealing with a Congress controlled by Democrats, whose legislative agenda is still materializing. On the eve of NCTA’s rebranded annual Cable Show, contributing editor Janet Stilson asked him about cable’s legislative outlook and the shifting public policy climate. An edited transcript follows.
What’s the industry’s toughest challenge?
Kyle McSlarrow: I think our toughest challenge is communicating to our policy makers.
Can you elaborate on that?
McSlarrow: There’s a lot of dynamism and what looks like chaos in the telecommunications market. [But policy makers] shouldn’t automatically conclude that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
It’s unnerving for everybody — we’re all trying to peer around the corner — whether it’s us, the phone companies, satellite. And the lines are starting to blur. In that kind of climate, it’s very easy for people who may perceive that they’re on the short end of the stick to go to policy makers and say, "Look at all this chaos. You need to do something."
So I think our biggest challenge is to explain to people, "No, this is actually great. It may be a little messy, and I can’t show you an org chart that shows you exactly how it works. But the proof of the pudding is what’s happening, in terms of consumers getting greater value for all these services and having more options and choices than ever before."
What’s the priority of this Congress when it comes to issues that pertain to telecommunications?
McSlarrow: So far as I can tell, issues like net neutrality are important, universal service. There’s another piece of legislation that’s going to move this year, which is the farm bill, which people may not think is relevant to us. But, in fact, one of our legislative priorities is to reform the Rural Utilities Service broadband loan program. We think that’s out of whack because government funds [are being used] to subsidize people to come in and overbuild our companies — and often telephone companies — to provide broadband.
Does a majority for the Democrats in Congress change the public policy scenario for cable?
McSlarrow: I’m not entirely certain I know the answer yet. I think that they’re still trying to figure out what their focus is going to be when it comes to telecommunications.
One chief difference is that it does not appear that there’s any huge desire to move a huge telecommunications rewrite, as was the case with the Republicans last Congress, so that’s a challenge and an opportunity. Big bills offer a greater opportunity to horse-trade on issues. It’s also an opportunity because it allows us to take the time — because they’re not rushing to enact legislation — to really educate all the members of the new leadership. I think we’ve got a great story to tell. So if I’m given more time to do that, strategically we’re better placed.
When you were hired, your Republican pedigree was an asset. Do you sense that’s making things harder with today’s Congress?
McSlarrow: I don’t hide under a bushel that I’m a Republican. [Democrats in Congress] know that. But I think they view NCTA as a credible trade association and advocacy group that they can rely on for good information. And they’re willing to hear our arguments. I have not picked up to the slightest degree the sense that anybody cares what my politics are, because I don’t conduct business that way.
There are members of the NCTA with competing agendas — those with broadcast station properties, those who are more purely cable operators. Should the two sides be represented by different organizations?
McSlarrow: I bought into the idea when I first took the job — and if anything, it’s more strongly held now — that we are stronger when we are united. That means the task of herding the cats can be difficult at times. Business interests aren’t always aligned. But, in general, I think our ability to communicate to the Hill and to the FCC on those issues where we do have alignment is much, much stronger.
The other advantage I think we have is that when there are those kinds of disagreements, NCTA offers a great forum for hashing them out behind closed doors.
Do you see a day when telco operators will be part of the NCTA, given that they’re delivering the same kinds of services?
McSlarrow: I don’t, really. That’s not to say it’s an impossibility, but I think this is as much cultural as anything else.
By and large the cable industry is very entrepreneurial. We’re not really a regulated industry in the same way that phone companies are. And there are certainly issues where we’re going to have some common interests. Net neutrality is one where we can work together. So I expect there will be greater and greater coordination, but I still think they’re different animals right now, even if they’re increasingly offering very similar services.
McSlarrow: I really think that for all the challenges we might have, the last couple of years have been pretty good for public policy, and they’ve been fantastic on the business side. And I think people are going to come to the show with a spring in their step about the industry and where we’re going. Doesn’t mean we won’t have challenges. We’ve got loads of competition. But I am confident that we are more than up to the task.