Two Guys, Two Jobs, One Chat

When two guys who have held the same job sit down to compare experiences, the talk can be fascinating.  When they have two jobs in common, their shared experiences can be even more dramatic - especially if the jobs are high-profile roles such as FCC chairman and NCTA president.

So when Tom Wheeler and Michael Powell sit down to gab on stage on the second day of the Cable Show later this month, the dialog could take some good turns.  They can't spend much time comparing tales about their private toilets at either office or how they scratched their initials into the respective desks.  Powell's NCTA office is in a different building than the one where Wheeler sat in the early 1980s. Powell, as the first FCC chairman to serve his entire term at the then-new building near the Potomac River where Wheeler now sits, probably didn't deface his new government-issue furniture.

Whatever they say, they'll have to talk quickly. Right now the plan for the Wheeler-Powell on-stage discussion is for the current FCC chairman to deliver a speech and then sit down briefly to chat with Powell.  Despite Washington's notorious revolving doors, this appears to be the first time a regulator-in-chief  and top lobbyist have ever held both jobs, so their conversation augurs historic insights.     

They could discuss pole attachments, a big topic in the late 1970s and early 1980s during Wheeler's NCTA tenure and now coming back into the spotlight as Google Fiber begins seeking aerial space. They probably won't delve deeply into pricing, although it's a perennial question - even more so today with escalating subscription prices fueled by program costs.

Wheeler and Powell may explore the cable industry's differences during their respective NCTA years. It would be fascinating to hear how Wheeler reflects on the dynamics of running an association that represented an industry (circa 1980) with about 5,000 cable systems reaching 14 million homes, barely a 20% of U.S. households back then. That's a fraction of today's numbers, although actual ownership parties are likely fewer.

Back in the early '80s, cable systems only delivered video, although some pioneering projects - in which Wheeler was later involved - experimented with data services. 

Powell might bring up content regulation, although the industry he currently represents faces vastly different  programming issues than in Wheeler's era, when regulatory remnants remained that restricted the time frames/"windows" in which new movies could run on pay TV channels.  Wheeler is likely to discuss competition and consolidation, topics that have arced since the '80s and, with today's hot topics such as Aereo and Comcast/Time Warner Cable now top of mind. We know how Powell will respond.

The audience might be intrigued (or amused) if Wheeler and Powell talk politics, given their differing party orientations. They could reflect on the people who held each job in the periods between each man's  terms at the FCC and NCTA, or more significantly, the policy routes that were taken by Chairmen Martin, Genachowski and Clyburn or NCTA presidents such as James Mooney, Decker Anstrom, Robert Sach and Kyle McSlarrow.  

I began pondering in January how a public Wheeler-Powell chat would go. Then I had an unexpected peek  during Wheeler's chatty, candid conversation with  American Cable Association president Matt Polka on stage at the ACA policy summit a few weeks ago.  Wheeler mentioned several times that he had sat in Polka's chair as president of a cable lobbying group, mostly in reference to the need to determine and identify how policy-makers would behave.

Wheeler's open declaration of his cable lobbyist background was no surprise, but put a spotlight on his mind-set just days after the controversial FCC ruling that he pushed to smack down broadcasters' joint sales agreements and siding with cable on retransmission consent deals.

Sunday's Washington Post profile of Wheeler  stressed his candor and comfort discussion his long lobbying career.

Although Powell and Wheeler historically have cable in common, current decisions focus more in digital businesses: cloud, wireless, broadband economics.  During Powell's FCC era, Internet realities were just falling into place, often very awkwardly.   Now Wheeler has to implement (or repair) policies created a decade ago.

The two chairman/president colleagues have plenty of notes to compare.  Including the truth about what they really did scratch into each others' desks.

Gary Arlen examines digital technology and policy from Arlen Communications. Reach him at 

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.