Since signing on last spring as Comcast's top lobbyist, Kerry Knott has led a transformation of the Washington office in a way that mirrors the company's vault to the top of the cable industry.
From a one-person shop, Comcast's Washington team today stands at nine people and counting. "We realized we needed a bigger presence in D.C. if Comcast is going to be the industry leader," Knott says.
Comcast, like the cable industry as a whole, had neglected relations on Capitol Hill since the passage of the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996. Instead, it had focused almost exclusively on influencing FCC efforts to implement the law by drafting regulations, many of which would shape cable's entry into telephone and high-speed-data markets.
With a host of new policy issues on the way, he says, neglect of Capitol Hill could not continue. "The industry needed to reintroduce itself because cable has changed so much in the last few years. We're really a technology and leader, and that's not how most members of Congress have traditionally thought of cable."
Hiring a bipartisan team of experienced policy and political experts, Knott set out to spread the message that Comcast and other cable companies have spent more than $76 billion since 1996 in upgrading for telephony, broadband and HDTV and to press Capitol Hill to refrain from imposing burdens on cable's fledgling businesses.
Washington is grappling with decisions that will affect the company and the industry, including the possibility of new ownership caps, rules for access to cable companies' broadband networks, regulation of voice over Internet, and must-carry rules for broadcast TV stations.
"In addition to educating Congress about cable in general, our mission is to persuade members not to go along with those who want to turn back the clock and reregulate the industry," he says. "Deregulation is why the industry was willing to risk so much investment capital in the first place."
Knott started at Comcast by bringing a host of well-regarded policy and political advisers, including Brian Kelly, former Disney and NAB lobbyist; Melissa Maxfield, former political action committee chief for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle; and Jessica Wallace, previously the top GOP staffer on the House telecommunications subcommittee.
The mixture of political and policy experts is by design. "It's good to have people from both backgrounds. The issues we face now are affected by a combination of policy and politics."
Cable should draw that lesson from last year's fight over deregulation of broadcast-ownership rules, he observes. "I don't know anyone who saw that issue coming down with the ferocity that developed. The demagoguery opportunities were high, and some groups took advantage of it."
He doesn't expect as big a fight over the pending changes to cable-ownership limits, in part because operators generally won't be affected by the same frustration of serving local markets. Cable operators have blunted potential for that kind of attack by agreeing to offer local public-access channels and by introducing their own local news operations.
But other issues, particularly regulation of cable broadband networks, could be contentious.
If a political fight is coming, Knott is a perfect choice to jump into the fray. As a trusted aide to Rep. Dick Armey during the first half of the Clinton Administration, he was in the middle of his boss's most difficult (and largely successful) legislative fights, including passage of most provisions of the GOP's Contract With America, enacting military-base–closing legislation, and a balanced-budget initiative.
Knott decided to move on to the private sector after those tiring fights. "After six incredibly intense years in the leadership office, I realized I was running out of gas for that particular job and wanted to try something different."