Despite five years of helping the cable industry dodge regulatory bullets, National Cable Television Association President Robert Sachs could be heading for a fall.
Sachs's contract isn't up until December, but challenges to his leadership are expected to come to a head before the association's September board meeting. The former lawyer and cable executive, who joined the NCTA in 1999, has some support among some cable operators. But several other industry bigwigs believe the organization needs new leadership, and it's time for the search to begin. Even one Sachs supporter acknowledges that, "more likely than not, there will be a mutual decision to find someone else."
Rob Stoddard, NCTA senior vice president for communications, says contract negotiations will begin when Congress adjourns in October. "Later in the year is a more logical time to step back," he says, "and look at strategic issues."
The complaint among several of his bosses is that Sachs is too low-key on Capitol Hill, yet too abrupt with NCTA staff and sometimes with them. Some insiders say he hasn't galvanized cable operators with a clear agenda. Cable executives envy the way telcos and broadcasters manipulate the regulatory process to their advantage.
Conversely, Sachs has been frustrated by members on the NCTA board. He privately complained when Cox Communications President Jim Robbins kicked off a public crusade against ESPN programming costs during testimony before a Senate committee. Robbins even nodded "yes" when Sen. John McCain asked whether Congress should regulate programming costs, shocking other operators, as well.
Sachs supporters include Time Warner Cable Chairman Glenn Britt and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. "We've had strong, productive relationship," says Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen. "When you look at the regulatory and legislative challenges that have confronted this industry since [Sachs] started at the NCTA, his track record has been pretty strong."
The NCTA chief has succeeded in stalling broadcasters' attempts to force cable systems to carry TV stations' analog and digital signals. Stations also have not been granted "must-carry" status for extra channels in their digital feeds.
But Sachs's critics charge the organization is always playing defense, instead of gaining ground in Washington's regulatory turf wars. "You can name things that have been stopped, name things that have been accomplished," says one cable executive. The same exec predicts the association will need a more aggressive approach when Congress gears up for a massive rewrite of telecommunications law next year.
Much is at stake for NCTA, including keeping telephone service over cable's high-speed Internet lines (or VoIP) as free of regulation as possible. Cable executives want to thwart any attempt to add cable to pending anti-indecency bills that mainly target broadcast. The cable lobby also opposes the FCC's plan to sock operators with new carriage requirements for stations' "multicast" channels.
And there's grumbling that Sachs hasn't done enough to cozy up to Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House. But NCTA insiders counter that two of three major job openings at the organization were filled with Republicans.
Sachs isn't the only media lobbyist whose future appears uncertain. National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts's new contract, hotly contested by cranky TV-station owners, could end next year. And for the past year, the Motion Picture Association of America has been seeking a replacement for aging leader Jack Valenti.
Why so much turmoil in these $1 million-a-year jobs? Because trade-association chiefs juggle the conflicting agendas of multibillion-dollar conglomerates and upstart entrepreneurs that are used to running their respective shows. It's akin to being the commissioner of Major League Baseball, with powerful masters whose agendas are often at odds.
For now, it's unclear how eager Sachs is to stay in such a tumultuous position. During the week, he lives in a swank Dupont Circle hotel, but he and his wife reside in Boston. Money isn't a big issue. A former government-relations chief for Continental Cablevision, he scored big when the cable operator was sold to telco US West.
Sachs may decide to leave before anybody asks him to go.