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NCTA’s Michael Powell Opines

NCTA president and CEO, Michael Powell -- in this eight-question interview -- graciously allowed The Carmel Group a bit deeper into his professional world as head of the nation’s largest representative cable trade group. The Carmel Group, since its earliest days, has prided itself on its efforts toward and success in interviewing and moderating: all in an effort to better inform its viewers and readers about telecom.

In this iteration, we not only thank Mr. Powell for the vision and provocativeness of his answers, but as importantly, find ourselves actually looking forward to the opportunity to watch him and the National Cable Telecommunications Association develop and implement that vision. This article is intended also to accompany last week’s column, which focused on an overview of the National Cable Telecommunications Association.

  1.  Why did you take on the top job at NCTA?

Prior to my joining NCTA, the world already was going through great, epic change, and it was clear that the blossoming of the information age had come to represent an incredibly exciting transformation of our society.  Cable is not only swept up in this change, but in many ways is driving it.  We have an extraordinarily proud heritage of entrepreneurism, investment, innovation, and execution – and sustaining these attributes, even deepening our commitment to them – is critical to our success in the future.  I love the combination of a proud sense of tradition, and seemingly unlimited opportunity.  And, as someone who loves his country and only wants the best for it, I think what we are doing is building a better America and a better life for our countrymen.  How could you not be attracted to those opportunities?

  1.  What are NCTA’s major challenges?

I’ve said often that I’ve inherited a great staff and a terrific operation at NCTA.  We’ve got an excellent reputation among policy makers and are acknowledged as a thought leader in federal policy as it pertains to legislative and regulatory activities.  I’m working hard, however, to make sure we don’t rest on our laurels.  The digital age has introduced a new level of vigilance among consumers, analysts, journalists, and other constituencies.  And we need to find ways to better marshal support for our points of view and to effectively make our case – not only to the people who regulate us, but also to those who influence the regulators and opinion leaders.  This means a focus on making better use of digital tools, communication channels, and all of the apparatus that has swept in with this new era.  I think of these efforts as “NCTA 3.0” – learning new tricks that enable sustained advocacy in the digital age.  If we can’t master these new skills and tools, we’ll be swept away by the digital tide and quickly become irrelevant.  Beyond that challenge, it’s all about forging consensus among our member companies in order to be able to present a united front in pursuing legislative and regulatory objectives. 

  1. Legislatively, what are NCTA’s major opportunities?

With a new Congress, there are many new members.  And, because of turnover, retirements and other developments, there are new leaders for some of the key committees that provide Congressional oversight of our industry.  So we’re working hard to introduce ourselves and our industry to new Members, and to become better acquainted with those who are assuming leadership of key committees.  In addition, the new Congress may look closely at making some surgical improvements to key long-standing statutes governing the regulatory ground rules for cable.  It’s hard to say right now what issues will come into focus, but the discussion gives us a great opportunity to remind policy makers of everything cable has brought to the table since these laws were enacted: Hundreds of billions of dollars in investment in broadband and new services. Award-winning content that consumers are wild about.  Making broadband service available to more than 93 percent of American households.  The rollout of competitive and affordable telephone service.  And so on.  Our overarching objective is to maintain a regulatory climate in which cable operators, programmers, and vendors can rapidly and effectively anticipate and meet consumer needs.  We work hard to represent the interests of our companies – and our customers and viewers – in any legislative activities. 

  1. What keeps you as NCTA CEO awake at night?

Generally I sleep pretty well.  But I know that whatever manifests itself in our marketplace eventually – sooner or later – is going to have an impact on our work in Washington.  So I say a prayer every night for good customer care; content we can be proud of; minimal disruption to our networks and infrastructure; and wise, insightful, and forward-looking corporate strategies. 

  1. Could you describe any [companies] you consider competitors?

We live in the world of “frenemies” now, where companies and industry sectors with which we do business – or would like to do business – may also be trying to eat our lunch. This is true in broadband. It’s true in content and in video distribution. It’s true in online video and in the multiplatform world.  And members of NCTA themselves – particularly on the content and vendor sides – frequently are competing with each other.  This environment may be nerve-rattling for our business, but it’s great for our customers.  There are more choices, more new and forthcoming products and services, and more exciting ways of communicating and being entertained than ever before.

  1. If you had to champion a few, who in Congress are your best supporters?

We think we have the ability to earn the support of just about any member of Congress – so I wouldn’t limit ourselves to a list of “best” supporters.  My experience in working with Members of Congress over the years is that they want the best information you can provide on a given issue, without any spin or sugar-coating.  And then they want to be assured that you’re doing your level best to serve consumers.  They also want to know that you’re taking their feedback seriously and are willing to accommodate their thinking on how to solve or address specific issues.  If we are responsive, respectful, and collaborative, we earn their support.

  1. Describe the culture at NCTA? Kick in the butt or pat on the back? Or both, or something else?

In a word – dynamic.  Our work frequently requires 24-by-7 attention to government and regulatory activities, so things seem constantly busy for us.  Our staff is of modest size – just about 100 people – so the place has a real “family” feel to it.  Each year, we honor employment milestones for staffers who have served for 10 years or more – and there are surprisingly many of them.  We are also a very diverse team, so this past year, we instituted a series of heritage months to observe and discuss contributions made by the many different segments that comprise our society.  We celebrate the holidays with a big winter social, and we try to get everyone out of the office for a day each summer as well, with a summer celebration.  We have a group of employees that serves as our “CableFit” committee, with a focus on helping employees maintain a healthy lifestyle.  So as you can see, there’s a lot going on.  I think our employees have a deep-seated respect for each other, and there are many long and abiding friendships among NCTA staffers.  It’s dynamic, and a great place to work. 

  1. Where do you see the NCTA and its members in five years?

If we’re successful, in five years we’ll be one of the best trade associations in the country.  Not just among the telecommunications and entertainment industries, but among all trade associations.  That’s our goal.  Our members will be enjoying healthy growth for their businesses, will be acknowledged and admired among global business for their level of innovation, and they’ll be doing a better-than-ever job of serving consumers.  They’ll still be fighting vigorously in an even more competitive world for every customer, every viewer.  But that struggle will produce innovative products and services we haven’t even thought of yet.  I get excited when I think about the future.  It’s all good. 

Jimmy Schaeffler is a telecom author and chairman/CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group (