Learning Curve

New NCTA chief knows D.C., not cable
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Kyle McSlarrow, who becomes president of the cable industry’s main trade group Tuesday, freely admits: “I don’t know beans about cable.”

But if the board of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association doesn’t see his lack of industry experience as a drawback, the former Energy Department official isn’t going to worry about it either.

“I’m mindful I have an enormous amount of learning to do,” he said over lunch with reporters at Washington steakhouse Sam & Harry’s, a favorite power-dining hangout for lobbyists. “I guess they were looking for someone who can pull it all together.”

He replaces Robert Sachs, who stepped down Feb. 28 after leading NCTA for five years.

Because of his lack of industry experience, McSlarrow refused to give opinions on the public policy and industry debates facing cable.

A VIEWER'S VIEW

The one exception was the ongoing congressional effort to rein in sex and violence on TV. McSlarrow, 44, defended cable’s exemption from the type of indecency restrictions that broadcasters face. “I’ve got three boys, and there’s a lot on TV I don’t want them to watch.” But he’s “comfortable” with the channel-blocking technology that cable offers parents: “I don’t want to start making decisions about what other people watch.”

As for his own viewing, McSlarrow says his family subscribes to the Farifax, Va., Cox franchise and gets a digital package that includes high-definition service. He also owns a digital video recorder and just started getting his telephone service over cable.

The Sci Fi Channel is his favorite, and he’s glued to the tube Friday nights watching Stargate, Stargate Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica.

The first project for NCTA is designing a strategy for navigating a fierce legislative battle over the U.S. telecommunications laws, which Congress will kick off in the next few weeks.

The outcome of the telecom rewrite will be critical for cable as it breaks into businesses dominated by regional telephone monopolies and tries to stave off those rivals’ incursion into video delivery. Lawmakers are expected to set regulation for Internet telephone service, which cable operators would like to see as light as possible. NCTA also is determined to block phone companies’ bid to exempt their fledgling pay-TV services from local franchising rules that require cable operators to serve their entire local markets, including low-profit poor neighborhoods.

OUT OF THE BLUE, IT CLICKED

McSlarrow says he can best help NCTA in the upcoming fight by capitalizing on Capitol Hill contacts developed during his days as a congressional aide and by tapping management experience gleaned from four years as deputy secretary for the Department of Energy.

McSlarrow says there is one similarity between the energy and cable industries that gives him insight into his new duties: Both businesses operate over networks that are heavily regulated by the local, state and federal governments.

Cable and energy industries operate networks that are regulated in varying degrees by the government. Like the cable industry’s fight to remain free of access rules that would force operators to carry rival Internet providers on their high-speed networks, energy companies too must grapple with rules governing sharing of pipelines and power grids.

“I was dealing with open access every day,” he says.

McSlarrow says the NCTA job was the only post he interviewed for after deciding to leave the Energy Department shortly after President Bush was reelected, although he was approached for energy-related jobs at law firms and other trade groups. The chance to head a well-established, highly regarded trade group with business at the forefront of new technology service was too good to pass up, he says.

A request from search firm Korn-Ferry to interview for the job came “out of blue,” he says. Before that call, his only major contact with the cable industry occurred during debate over the 1996 Telecommunications Act, when he was working as deputy chief of staff for then Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Decker Anstrom, former NCTA president who now sits on the board, approached him for the interview. “When they called me,” McSlarrow says, “it clicked.”

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