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.