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Backtalk: Goodbye CATA?

Call it another unintended consequence of merger mania, butword was slowly trickling out at the Western Show last week that CATA (the CableTelecommunications Association), the trade association for small cable operators, could beabsorbed into the NCTA, the industry's lobbying association, during the second halfof 1999.

Nothing is forever, but its hard to envision a cableindustry without Steve Effros, who has been at CATA's helm for 23 years, stumping hisway across the country and acting as an untiring advocate for the industry.

But with about two-thirds of the industry's MSOsrepresented on both associations' boards already, Barry Babcock, chairman of CharterCommunications Inc. and this year's CATA chairman, acknowledged, "Some peoplewould like to see [the NCTA and CATA] merge."

Babcock stressed that no decision had been made, and thatif Effros and his staff said this wasn't what they wanted to do, that would be finewith him, and things would remain status quo.

Effros said, "If something is going to happen, now isthe time for it," referring to the consolidation and convergence of the cable andtelephone industries and the complexities that have and will continue to crop up.

"But it's not clear yet that [a joined NCTA andCATA] can supply all of the member services during this kind of move. That's notnailed down yet, and until it is, this is a work in progress," he added.

Although the CATA review process continues, judging fromthe comments of others who are familiar with the process, both associations seem to beworking hard toward that outcome actually occurring.

"There's a reasonable chance that this comesabout," one source who is familiar with the ongoing review said." They'reat the hammering-out stage -- how would it work, the timing, et cetera."

Apparently: Sources said CATA has already hired RobertSachs -- the former legal beagle and lobbyist from Continental Cablevision Inc., who chosenot to make the move to new owner MediaOne -- to help CATA think through its strategicreview.

One important consideration is timing. Neither board wantsthe industry's lobbying arm, the NCTA, distracted during the all-important firstquarter, with major cable legislation looming.

After all, on cable's calendar are rate regulation,digital must-carry and the unbundling of data transmission, noted Effros, adding thatnothing must distract that work in progress.

Another very important consideration is what role, if any,Effros would play if the NCTA does indeed swallow up CATA. Effros deferred comment on thatquestion, but we certainly hope that he does not ride off into the sunset, given hisinstitutional knowledge of the business, which both newcomers and old hands can continueto benefit from.

Effros has been heading up CATA for the past 23 years, andhe has had his own pulpit for being an industry spokesman, although during recent years,he has pretty much left the business of lobbying up to NCTA president Decker Anstrom.

Sources say Sachs is helping to craft a deal so that Effrosmay have a continuing relationship with the cable industry, but what that might be isanyone's guess at this point in time.

Sources also say Sachs is currently helping CATA to weighthe pros and cons of merging, seeking feedback from its members about the value of some ofthe membership services that it now provides, such as its popular Web site and"CATAFax."

At press time last week, neither association had set a firmdate for its respective board meetings to decide the fate of CATA and its staffers, butsources said their fate should be sealed by February.

So far, the process has seemed quite reflective, and wehope that cooler heads prevail and do what's really best for the small operators,which need more representation than ever during these tumultuous times.