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When Storm Clouds Grew

Shortly after Decker Anstrom became president of the National Cable Television Association in 1994, he gave a speech in which he confessed that, as a child in North Dakota, he and a friend deliberately set his neighbor's home on fire.

The kids also called the fire department, which quickly doused the flames, and, for a little while, the two tykes were considered heroes for their quick thinking. Only after his conscience got the best of him did Anstrom confess—and begin the bruising process of rebuilding his reputation around the neighborhood.

Anstrom told the story because, in 1994, the cable industry was in crisis. “You have to remember, when he took over, rates had been rolled back, and we had a lot of enemies,” says Char Beales, president and CEO of CTAM, the cable marketing organization. “He changed the image of the industry.”

By1992, bad service, bad attitudes and bad publicity led Congress to re-regulate the industry, chilling investors. Anstrom, recalling those days, says, “Quite candidly, in the late '80s and early '90s, cable was in self-denial. Rates were going up, and we had a bad relationship with regulators and the public. The industry created a lot of its own problems, and the purpose of my story was to say, 'We have a problem, and it's time to own up to it.'”

Anstrom turned out to be the right person at the right time. By the time he left the NCTA in 1999, cable had successfully started its on-time–service guarantee, and in Washington, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other measures left the industry more or less free of the hammering re-regulation of 1992.

Anstrom—quiet, unfailingly polite but perfectly direct—had steered cable on a new course.

This week, he is honored with one of the two Vanguard Awards for Distinguished Leadership, in large part for what he did for the cable industry in the '90s.

Says Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who will step down—after 23 years—this fall, “I have great respect for Decker. Through the years, we've been through many battles, sometimes on the same side of an issue, sometimes on opposite sides. I've always found Decker to be true to his word and a first-class professional.”

Ask around, and others will quickly agree. “The problem with Decker is that, to describe him, you have to decide when to stop the string of superlatives,” says Beales, who worked with him at the NCTA earlier in her career. “He's incredibly human, and he has a great strategic mind.”

Anstrom, who grew up in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wyoming, ended up a powerful presence in Washington, first as president of Public Strategies, a consulting firm heavy on mulling public policy and issuing economic analyses. Earlier, he worked in the Carter administration as assistant director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, at the Office of Management and Budget and at the Executive Office of the President, where he helped create the U.S. Department of Education.

He joined the NCTA in 1987 as its chief lobbyist and ascended to the top spot seven tumultuous years later.

Although he worked near the TV industry, he had never been a part of it—his family didn't even own a set until 1968—so it was quite a departure when, in 1999, he left to become president of the Weather Channel. By 2002, he became the president and chief operating officer of Landmark Communications, which owns the Weather Channel, a couple of TV stations and a string of newspapers.

He admits now that seeing the other side of television was a fascinating learning experience.

“Absolutely!” he says. “When I was at the NCTA, we would become involved with helping settle carriage issues between programmers and operators. Our biggest job there was to make sure they didn't bring their problems to the attention of [officials in] Washington. Working for a cable network was an eye opener for me, because I could then see the intricacies of the business models and how fragile they could be.”

It's an odd coincidence that the NCTA has just changed leadership, the FCC just got a new chairman and NAB leadership will soon change. But Anstrom thinks change at the top of trade organizations is good, too, because it allows the industry to create and react to different goals.

Anstrom, 54, is still very involved. He is on the board of directors of the NCTA—which now stands for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association—and he helped on the search to find Kyle McSlarrow, the successor to Robert Sachs, who replaced Anstrom. He is also on Comcast Corp.'s board of directors and serves as vice chairman of the board of directors of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

Being on the outside with a good sense of the inside, Anstrom ponders the big issues, including that of mega-giant operators and networks.

“It's pretty apparent, with consolidation in the media, the big will get bigger,” he says. “Is that good or bad? It's a little of each. It's bad because we'll lose some of the entrepreneurship—the people willing to do something new. But being close to Comcast, I also see, because of their size, how impactful and meaningful they can be.”

Joking about his little Landmark Communications—with no giant stable of networks other than the Weather Channel—he says, “We are increasingly unique.” That is what a lot of admirers would say about Anstrom, too.