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Sachs Speaks His Mind

Robert Sachs knows how to make the best of a tough situation. The president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association took control of the timetable and declared he was quitting. Sachs submitted his resignation to end speculation that his future at the powerful cable lobbying group was in jeopardy [
, 6/21, page 18]. He sat down with
's John M. Higgins to talk about why he's leaving and what he thinks the NCTA needs now.

Why did you decide to leave?

I've been thinking a lot for the last year about what I wanted to do. I was not interested in campaigning for renewal of my contract. I believe the staff knows that we've represented the industry very well in this period. I said to Glen Britt [chairman of both NCTA and Time Warner Cable] a few weeks back that I was not going to do this again.

I had not had an opportunity to talk with the executive committee or the board, and I wanted to be able to do that face to face. But some of the press speculation influenced that timetable. I felt by the end of last week that it was important to communicate with the entire board.

As a practical matter, there's the presidential election in the fall, a new Congress in January, and associations really need to think of jobs like this in two- or four-year increments because life does revolve around the congressional sessions and the new legislation being introduced.

How did you lose the support of the board?

I don't know that premise is correct. Anybody who does this job needs to balance a lot of interests. We have a 32-member board. We represent cable operators, cable programmers, equipment companies. In the end, we do what represents the overall best interests of the industry. We've done that very successfully for the last five years. With minor exception, NCTA has been fully engaged on issues. If there's no consensus, then individual companies can take a position on their own.

But the way NCTA operates—and this may be different than other trade associations—is by general consensus. If there is somebody who takes issue with a position and they feel strongly about it, there's an incredible deference by the rest of the group. It may sound unusual, but that's really how it has worked, and that's why NCTA has succeeded in having group harmony 95% of the time.

The notable exception to your board's unity is Cox's Jim Robbins' fight against ESPN's license fees, which the NCTA sat out.

It's funny, the board was pretty unanimous on that subject, too. Maybe one or two people felt otherwise. I've been very public about my view that we don't take what are business issues to the government for resolution. And I believe that the vast majority of my board feels precisely the same way.

It's far better to compete head to head in the market with other industries and entities than to rely on the government to solve competitive issues. It can lead to unintended consequences.

We've heard people complain that you're not Republican enough.

It's somewhat of a red herring thrown out there. The issues we work on tend to be nonpartisan issues. It's very difficult to say must-carry or retransmission consent is a Democrat or a Republican issue. I have enjoyed very good relationships with the FCC, which has had a Republican majority. I worked very closely with key Republicans, including Billy Tauzin, Fred Upton and Chip Pickering. And probably the overwhelming majority of the CEOs on our board are Republicans.

What do you like to consider your successes?

They're not personal successes; I have a great group of people.

Probably the most important success is that we have established a deregulatory environment for cable-modem services. When Bill Kennard was still FCC chairman, we were able to establish with a Democratic-led FCC that vigilant restraint was the best policy with respect to regulating new broadband services.

Also important was a Supreme Court case involving cable pole attachments, the fees utilities charge to run wires on their poles. Utility companies wanted to charge cable operators extra because the cable fiber would have not just video but data traveling over it. That saved the industry $1 billion or more a year in pole fees.

Three years ago, the FCC ruled that dual must-carry [forcing cable operators to carry the analog and digital versions of TV stations], which was very important to our companies, would likely be unconstitutional. So there are a lot of other things that we have worked on with some high degree of success.

So what kind of person should be replacing you? Industry insider? A Washington celebrity?

I may not be totally objective about this. For our industry, which is comprised of companies with different business interests some of the time, it's essential that the person in this job have a working knowledge of the business and, even better, personal relationships with the leaders in this industry. As important is that the person have experience in government or working with government, a strong sense of how the political process works, and an ability to communicate with and work with lots of different people.