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Exit Strategies

As Robert Sachs prepares to depart from his position as president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association after more than five years at the helm, he sat down with Multichannel News contributor Michael Grebb to reflect on the future of the cable industry and his own career. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Based on your experiences at the NCTA, what do you think is in store for the cable industry over the next few years?

ROBERT SACHS: There will be further consolidation and change, but we’ve come a long way. I’m as excited as I have been at any point in my career about the prospects for this business. We’ve made [more than a $85 billion] investment in the broadband infrastructure since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. And while voice-over-[Internet protocol telephony] is still in its infancy, I’ve got to believe that our companies are going to capture 25% or 30% or more of the telephone market within five years’ time.

MCN: What about video on demand? That seems to get a lot of press these days.

SACHS: Video on demand is also in its infancy. As we look down the road, in addition to having linear television channels, we will more and more be scheduling our own television viewing. Whether it’s VOD or DVR [digital video recorder] technology, we won’t be so reliant on watching television programs when they’re originally broadcast. I don’t really use the paper guide anymore because I just go to the electronic guide and pick out what to watch and record it. And it’s simple. It’s just a click. So I think there’s a lot of growth ahead of the business in terms of digital broadband services.

MCN: What about the regulatory environment going forward?

SACHS: I do think it’s vitally important that we establish the deregulatory environment for VoIP and that we maintain the deregulatory environment for cable-modem service. The digital-TV transition should also occur in a way that is minimally disruptive to consumers. The goal really is to make it happen in a way that does not inconvenience tens of millions of television households.

MCN: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried to create a hard deadline that would have forced broadcasters to give up their spectrum on a certain date, but it died in committee.

SACHS: Yes, but one thing that I’ve learned over the years working in Washington is that with every new Congress, springtime occurs again. The seasons repeat, so there will be new opportunities to set a timetable for the transition from analog to digital. It’s entirely possible that Congress will again look at something along the lines of what Sen. McCain proposed.

MCN: Of course, McCain loses his Commerce Committee chairmanship next session.

SACHS: Sen. McCain — whether he’s a committee chairman or not — is a powerful force in the Senate. I would expect that he will continue to champion a fixed date not too far in the future for the digital transition.

MCN: How long do you expect to remain at the NCTA?

SACHS: I care about what happens to this business and what happens to this organization, so I have committed to the board that I would remain as the president and CEO until a successor is in place. I will do whatever is helpful to facilitate that transition — whether that will be the first of the year or sometime in the first quarter.

MCN: Is it possible that you’ll stay on until the National Show in April?

SACHS: Anything is possible. But I think it’s desirable for the association to have a new CEO in place as early as possible, given the fact that we’re going to have a full agenda on Capitol Hill and important issues at the [Federal Communications Commission].

MCN: What is your involvement in the selection process?

SACHS: The search firm has been charged with putting together a list of possible candidates. If on that list there are people who I know, and the board members ask me for my thoughts, I will offer them. But I think it’s really for the board to make some cuts.

MCN: Are you going to miss this job?

SACHS: Absolutely.

MCN: Isn’t it also a weight off your shoulders, though?

SACHS: I won’t miss getting up at 4 or 5 on Monday morning and catching a 7 a.m. shuttle from Logan, or getting home at 7:30 or 8 on a Friday evening, with a two-ounce bag of pretzels on U.S. Air. But I never saw this as a career in and of itself. These are all-consuming jobs, and I think you can devote your full energy to it for about five or six years. That’s about the tenure.

MCN: What are your personal plans?

SACHS: I’ll do some industry consulting. I’m also on several boards that I’ll have an opportunity to contribute to more — the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston. I’m also the vice chair of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. So I may not be Blackberrying as much at 4 or 5 in the morning, but I expect to be fairly busy.

MCN: Any advice for the next NCTA president?

SACHS: I think it’s very similar to the advice that Decker [Anstrom, former NCTA president] gave to me, which is just to be true to yourself. It’s very important to maintain your integrity in this job. That’s really important for your success.