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Man With Class At the Top

NCTA President Michael Powell spoke with B&C last week as he prepared for his first convention atop the association, and he left us with the sense that the cable industry is in good hands.

Powell pitched himself as a storyteller with good material to work with: a forward-leaning industry that needs to be kept in that orientation, and with a public service commitment that doesn’t get enough props inside the Beltway.

Powell outlined a strategy that squares with his predecessors when it comes to refraining from seeking government regulation of its competition so as not to undercut its own message. Or put another way: The regulatory sword cuts both ways.

The man was known for regulatory restraint in his tenure as FCC chairman, and he plans to practice a form of that at the NCTA. One thing that has made the NCTA such an effective lobby is the consistency of that message. For example, the NCTA has stayed out of the retransmission consent fight for the most part, leaving it to individual members to make their respective cases.

Of course, helping that principled stance against seeking regulatory intervention is the fact that getting the NCTA’s members on the same page can be like herding cats. An association that includes programmers and networks and broadband providers, phone service suppliers and broadcast station owners would be hard-pressed to establish a united position on some regulation, even if they all agreed that they wanted one.

The aforementioned sword image is appropriate for Powell, son of General Colin Powell and himself a former armored cavalry officer.

In his comfortable office, a polished cufflink’s throw from the Capitol, Powell is surrounded by some telltale accessories. A framed picture of his father faces him from across the room, a mug from alma mater William & Mary is close at hand, and on one wall is a painting of the famed African-American cavalry regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers. Together, they represent the key forces that have shaped him, he says: Family, education and military/public service.

Powell promises not to be shrill or to beat a path to the Hill or the FCC, instead saving his ammunition for the real fights.

“I would rather have the credibility with regulators and congresspeople that when I come to see them, I am coming because it matters, I am coming because this is serious, I am coming because this really has an impact that we do not think advances our interest or the public interest,” he says.

That approach is likely informed by his own experience on the other end of that lobbyist parade as FCC chair.

Powell’s experience in a military family and his own service contribute to basic principles he says will never be sacrifi ced to political expedience. He told B&C he would quit this or any job before he would resort to personal or character attacks on his opponents: “I was taught by some great parents that I don’t compromise anything in the category of personal or professional integrity or ethics. I won’t tolerate it in myself or in any organization that I am associated with. And that means acting consistently with your principles and it means acting no different in your personal and professional life.” He says associations should hold themselves to the same standard.

But that does not mean there is anything wrong with businesses, through their associations, advocating for their shareholders’ interest, he says. “Everybody is motivated by a set of predictable interests and attempts to maximize those interests, and I think that is a healthy and fair thing to do,” he says in rephrasing—and niftily buffing while not rebuffing—his past comment that lobbyists were “self-interested, money-chasing actors.”

As Powell himself said last week, only history will determine what his legacy will be. He disparages what he suggests is a common malady of trying to construct a legacy rather than doing your job and letting history take care of presenting the laurels or hurling the brickbats.

But at the outset, Powell has outlined a lobbying strategy that should be a good fit with the industry and wear well with the policymakers he must encourage to share his vision of the media future.