Dan Brenner: A Cable Original

Many of us are still shocked by the news that Dan Brenner has died after being hit by a driver as he crossed a Los Angeles street.

Dan had an extraordinarily distinguished career at the Federal Communications Commission; teaching at leading law schools; heading up one of the best legal teams in Washington at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association; practicing private law at one of Washington, D.C.’s leading firms; and, at the time of his death, serving as a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, appointed by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

There was an immediate outpouring of grief at Dan’s passing and that such a warm, smart and accomplished man had had his life cut short so senselessly. 

Many of these comments captured Dan’s rare combination of great humor and a brilliant legal mind, as well as his love of family, friends and colleagues. 

In addition, however, Dan cared deeply about our country — and the issues of social justice, freedom, and civil rights. Those qualities were not abstract for Dan. He lived them in his life and they motivated him in law, comedy, teaching, mentoring, and in his strong leadership in Cable Positive. I am sure they also made him an outstanding judge.

I was lucky enough to recruit Dan to be senior vice president for law at NCTA.  We had first met at a Cox Communications managers’ retreat.  Some mischievous soul (I suspect David Andersen) thought it would be great fun to pair the new guy at NCTA with this very funny, razor-sharp legal mind from UCLA. Dan got the better of our exchange. But what struck me in that first encounter were his warmth, his obvious talent and his ability to translate complicated legal and regulatory matters into language that non-lawyers could understand. When we needed a successor to the seemingly irreplaceable Brenda Fox at NCTA, Dan’s name was the first to come to mind.

I somehow convinced him to leave his beloved Los Angeles to join NCTA in Washington. We enjoyed a wonderful partnership that spanned work with the FCC and in the courts on implementation of the 1992 Cable Act and then the 1996 Telecommunications Act — the latter of which laid the legal foundation for cable’s renaissance into the leading force in information, entertainment and broadband.

Through it all, Dan maintained his humor, even in the most tense of times; his willingness to offer alternative points of view; and his crisp, knowledgeable advocacy for good public policy.

I have many memories of Dan, but one that always returns is from an NCTA Executive Committee retreat at a resort in western Massachusetts in the 1990s.  We’d had a tough, daylong policy and political discussion in which Dan had actively participated.  During that discussion, our leading CEOs agreed to drop our long-held opposition to the entry of the telephone companies into cable, if, in turn, cable would be deregulated and would promise to compete with the telcos in telephone and data services.  That day, in my mind, was the turning point for cable’s transformation from a “cable” to a “telecommunications” business — and with the subsequent enactment of the 1996 Act, the rest, as they say, is history.

That night after dinner, a group of us adjourned to the lounge, where Dan sat down at the piano and began to play the great American Standards, soon joined by a glowing Jane Fonda, who was there with Ted Turner, a member of our committee.  The sheer joy, fun and warmth that Dan created that night was magical.

From legal expert to piano player, Dan was an original.

I will miss him but never forget him.

The Hon. Decker Anstrom, recently leader of the U.S. delegation to the ITU World Radio Communication Conference, is former president and chief operating officer of Landmark Media Enterprises and former president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.