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Polka Lobbies for the Little Guy

When policymakers think of cable TV, they tend to concentrate on major players, such as Comcast, Time Warner and Cox. As president of the American Cable Association (ACA), Matt Polka seeks to broaden government officials’ focus to include obscure operators, such as Sunflower Broadband and County Cablevision. Polka pushes issues important to small operators, which often have agendas much different from the giants’ and do not have the lobbying machines their outsized competition do.

Tiny companies serving small towns and villages were once the backbone of the cable industry, which started out in rural areas unable to receive clear TV signals over the air. But that’s history. The top 10 operators currently serve 89% of the 65 million U.S. cable homes.

But, according to the Warren Cable TV Factbook, there are still another 1,400 operators across the U.S., several of them small entrepreneurs serving just a few thousand subscribers. Many have limited channel capacity and have been battered by DBS. Yet, besides supplying video, they bring high-speed Internet service, and some phone service, to small towns.

The Little Guys' Message

From their Pittsburgh base, Polka and his staff of four drive home the message of the ACA, which counts 1,100 members serving 8 million subscribers. “Policies oftentimes only concern the issues of the giants,” he says. “Ironically, their actions will diminish or even eliminate the advances they desperately want in rural areas.”

For example, small cable operators want Congress to prevent cable programmers from bundling multiple networks when negotiating with operators. MTV Networks’ best prices for MTV and Nickelodeon require operators to carry a raft of lesser channels, such as MTV2 and VH1 Classics. That taxes a small operator’s programming budget and channel capacity, not to mention the opportunity to carry edgier channels.

Polka never planned to be a lobbyist. Attending high school in a Pittsburgh suburb, he read books by famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey, counsel to such notorious murder defendants as the Boston Strangler and Dr. Sam Sheppard, and decided he wanted to go into law.

In college, he majored in journalism, figuring he would learn useful skills toward his law goals. After a couple of years at a boating publication, he returned to Pittsburgh for law school, then landed at major law firm Buchanan Ingersoll.

Unfortunately, Polka couldn’t crack the litigation department there. “I figured, well, I’m an old newspaper reporter. Give me anything in communications,” he says.

He ended up working on the affairs of numerous cable companies, both giants like Tele-Communications Inc. and the small fry that had sprouted up in the valleys of the Allegheny Mountains.

Two years after leaving Buchanan for another Pittsburgh firm, Thorp, Reed and Armstrong, Polka was tapped to join client Star Cable Associates—which served 41,000 subscribers—in 1990. That exposed him to regulatory issues involving both local franchises and new federal regulations that were crushing small operators.

Star was one of a number of little guys that spurred the 1993 creation of the ACA, after those federal cable laws were enacted. Four years after it was formed, Polka moved over to head its lobbying efforts.

Without the army of lobbyists enlisted by big operators and their trade association, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Polka has to scramble to get officials’ attention. “There’s no substitute for shoe leather,” he says. “You have to walk the hallways, grabbing people and scheduling meetings. Pretty much what we have is our story and our credibility.”

Getting Policymakers To Focus

Polka has proven adept at communicating that story. Before a meeting last year with powerful Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, Polka prepared a map marked with each town in the senator’s home state that’s served by the small operators. Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—both Comcast markets—were unmarked, but the map was littered with dots identifying the towns served by ACA’s members.

Polka says Santorum was impressed enough to pull the map over to his side of the table for a closer look. “He said, 'I didn’t realize there were that many,’” says Polka. “It gets the policymakers to really focus on who is providing service in their areas.”

The major issues facing small cable operators include an upcoming round of retransmission-consent negotiations, in which they lack the big players’ clout in resisting new demands for a fat cash payment. There’s also the matter of what operators will be forced to carry as broadcast stations make the transition to all-digital programming, and the pending overhaul of the 1996 Telecommunications Act—-which could harm rural cable companies in any number of ways.

Although his members’ systems lag in technology, Polka says, they’re catching up. More than 70% of the systems have launched high-speed Internet, he says, and some are rolling out VoIP telephone service, which could be a godsend to blunt the loss of subscribers to DBS.

So Polka is hustling to make sure ACA members have a fighting chance. “We are one player among many,” he says. “Not that policymakers should help us by giving us an advantage, God forbid. But at least allow us to be the cable competitor in those markets.”