In Depth

Pointing the Way to Progress

NCTA’s McSlarrow Relies on Diplomacy, Vision to Help Cable Find Its Direction

A strong visionary with remarkable finesse—that consensus pretty well sums up TelevisionWeek’s 2009 Cable Executive of the Year, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President-CEO Kyle McSlarrow.

Kyle McSlarrow

While the adjectives “smart” and “decent” frequently are applied to Mr. McSlarrow by friends, industry executives and former colleagues, they particularly credit the NCTA leader with being adept at two key skills: astutely recognizing coming challenges and exercising admirable diplomacy in wending his way through political minefields.

“The whole DTV transition would have been different if Kyle hadn’t been there,” says Tom Wheeler, the head of the Obama transition team’s task force on science, technology, space and arts agencies. “Kyle led the whole media industry in what became a crucial response.”

Mr. Wheeler, himself a past president of the NCTA, recalled his surprise that it was cable’s Mr. McSlarrow who stepped up to the challenge when the U.S. broadcasters’ changeover to digital TV signals became mired in controversy over a lack of consumer preparedness.

Last November, when Mr. Wheeler hosted a meeting of the transition team with cable, broadcast and consumer electronics industry officials, he laid out the worries the incoming administration had that preparation for the digital changeover wasn’t going well. The biggest problem was the lack of a call center to handle calls from confused consumers, he said, and he asked for help.

“Our position was, ‘What are you going to do to help us there?’” Mr. Wheeler said he told the execs. “‘There is a potential for a train wreck. What can you bring?’”

There wasn’t much feedback at the meeting, but afterward Mr. Wheeler received a call from Mr. McSlarrow.

“He said he heard what we were saying and was going to talk to his board,” Mr. Wheeler said. Eventually, at considerable expense, cable led the TV industry’s response to the Obama transition team’s concerns by footing much of the cost of setting up a live-operator-manned call center.

“NCTA, because of Kyle’s leadership, became a focal point,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It was what was best for the country. He clearly helped send that message and that the cable industry wanted to be players with the new administration,” said Mr. Wheeler.

The message that the cable industry is a player is one that Mr. McSlarrow has been trying to send since his surprise arrival at NCTA four years ago.

It’s also, say cable execs, a message that Mr. McSlarrow sent even as the cable industry faced challenges ranging from an unfriendly chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in Kevin Martin, to new or heightened competition from telephone companies and satellite broadcasters, and the issues of multicasting and retransmission.

Associates describe Mr. McSlarrow, 48, as exceptionally bright and a hands-on administrator unafraid to assist in the smallest as well as the largest of tasks.

Political Acumen

Some cable execs say that Mr. McSlarrow’s biggest asset may be his ability to face up to the unusual internal dynamics built into his job while keeping the cable industry a player.

They suggest Mr. McSlarrow has repeatedly demonstrated political acumen, pointing most obviously to his fending off most of the impact of former FCC Chairman Martin’s determined push for cable a la carte.

“I think everyone understood that without Kyle, things would have been a lot worse,” said Comcast President-CEO Brian Roberts. “Whatever happened was only better because Kyle was there.”

Decker Anstrom, the now-retired president and CEO of Landmark Communications, said the ultimate demonstration of Mr. McSlarrow’s success could be as much about what didn’t happen as what did.

“If you step back and look at his tenure, it’s been remarkably successful,” Mr. Anstrom said. “It’s very clear that the last sitting chairman of the FCC had a vendetta against the cable industry, yet very little of Kevin Martin’s agenda got into regulation.”

Four years ago, when he was picked, Mr. McSlarrow seemed an unlikely choice for the cable post. He had no background in cable or the television industry.

A former congressional aide and Bush administration official, Mr. McSlarrow was tapped at a time when House Republicans, under then Majority Leader Tom DeLay, were pushing the K Street Project, an effort to expand Republican influence from the Capitol into interest groups, though several cable executives said his party affiliation wasn’t a factor.

Mr. McSlarrow had been chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and then a top aide for Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Trent Lott. He’d also run for Congress twice in Virginia, had been national chairman of Dan Quayle’s presidential campaign in 2000 and had been government affairs director for grassroots.com, an Internet firm that he and former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry formed.

When President Bush chose Sen. Spencer Abraham as his Secretary of Energy, the latter tapped Mr. McSlarrow as first his chief of staff and eventually as deputy secretary of the department. To this day, Mr. McSlarrow retains some Republican ties—he was a fundraiser for the recent presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain.

Quick to Catch on

People who know Mr. McSlarrow from that pre-cable period describe him as unassuming, as willing to do minor jobs as major ones and smart, with an ability to quickly get up to speed on issues he knew little about.

“I remember when he was working as a top aide to Paul Coverdell and I walked into the office of the Republican Conference and there was this man in blue jeans and a cowboy hat with a round tub of chewing tobacco in his pocket making copies,” said Fred Davis, a Republican ad executive who has known Mr. McSlarrow for years. “I assumed he was the mailboy.”

In fact, it was Mr. McSlarrow.

“He just had this innate decency. People inherently trust him,” Mr. Davis said.

Ken Rapuano, who worked with Mr. McSlarrow at the Department of Energy before becoming Deputy Homeland Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, said Mr. McSlarrow had a quick learning curve on technical subjects.

“He was pretty hands-on proficient,” Mr. Rapuano said. “He was very good at cutting through the B.S.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the department wanted to combine various resources and end up with a better system to track nuclear material coming into the country or being moved around.

“He was really effective in cutting through some of the legacy bureaucratic issues and getting different labs to talk to each other,” Mr. Rapuano said. “Kyle was important. He helped to get us over the goal line in the inter-agency process. He was a pretty consummate diplomat and negotiator.”

Mr. McSlarrow was the last candidate seen by cable executives during a day of interviews for the NCTA post in 2005. Several in the room said he stood out despite his lack of cable experience.

“He blew us all away,” said Michael Willner, vice chairman and CEO of Insight Communications. “He was the last interview of the day and he got 100% of the opinions.”

Mr. Anstrom, who was co-chairman of the search committee, said the idea wasn’t to find someone who understood cable; that could be learned.

“You wanted someone extraordinarily bright, who understands Washington, both the Hill and the executive branch, who has a good feel for politicians and how politicians think, and gets along with people,” he said.

“In our industry there are some divisions. You have big and small companies.” He said Mr. McSlarrow stood out as someone with all the required strengths.

Mr. Roberts said he, like other cable execs, was surprised by Mr. McSlarrow: “I don’t think anyone I knew had heard of him. After the interview there was “no question,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was just blow away, head and shoulders … a unanimous decision. He had the mixture of the ability to understand the detail of the nuclear regulatory issues, but then pull back to see the whole picture. At the same time he had little or no ego. All those qualities seemed to come through.”

Mr. McSlarrow’s arrival at NCTA could have created staff tension. But it never happened. David Krone, then executive VP and a potential contender for the post, can’t speak highly enough about Mr. McSlarrow handled the situation.

When Mr. McSlarrow came in amidst the push for Republicans after Sen. John Kerry lost the race for president, Mr. Krone, now a senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said he feared upheaval. Instead, “He could not have been a better partner,” Mr. Krone said. “Day in, day out, he displays a decency. He’s ethical, honest and trustworthy. I can’t say enough kind things. What is so impressive is his intelligence and intellect. Some day he’ll be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He was a leader and manager who just happened to be a Republican. He could write the book on how to do it right.”

At NCTA, Mr. McSlarrow immediately ran into Mr. Martin, who as chairman turned his desire for a la carte cable into a long-term campaign that kept cable in the doghouse and the courthouse fighting off the FCC.

In FCC ruling after ruling, no matter what the subject, cable seemed to lose. That led Mr. McSlarrow to criticize Mr. Martin in an unusually vocal and public way. In a November 2007 press conference, Mr. McSlarrow called the FCC “broken.”

“The agenda that has been pursued under Chairman Martin … when you look at the kind of proposals, from a la carte to the imposition of additional must-carry obligations to technology mandates, to decisions that literally cost consumers more and raise their rates, to decisions that favor one industry over another … what this is all about is pursuing one particular agenda item—a la carte—and using the rest of these proposals to pressure our industry to do voluntarily what the FCC does not have authority to mandate,” Mr. McSlarrow said at the time.

Mr. Martin declined to comment on Mr. McSlarrow for this article.

Although cable repeatedly lost, cable executives praise Mr. McSlarrow. They say dealing with a nearly impossible situation, the NCTA president lessened its impact.

“I love Kyle,” said BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee. “He has been a terrific leader of the NCTA, a straight shooter who is very clear on objectives and strategy for accomplishing what we need. People on both sides of the aisle respect him and he is a quick study. He understands the programmers’ issues.”

She said Mr. Martin tried to pit system operators versus programmers.

“Kyle made sure he didn’t draw us into a fight among ourselves,” she said.

Insight’s Mr. Willner said Mr. McSlarrow has been a strong and effective champion. “We hit a grand-slam home run,” he said. “He is a terrific representative for the industry, a great communicator and a great strategist. What’s uniquely special is his breadth of success. There are no weak areas.”

Kathy Zachem, who heads Comcast’s regulatory affairs and state government relations, gives Mr. McSlarrow the ultimate compliment.

“If we are heading down the road to something as a company, we always do a sanity check with Kyle,” she said. “He always has value to add. He regularly finds out-of-the-box stuff we didn’t think of. He has this incredible capability.

“Usually these executives have a great public persona or something else. There is some mix. He has it all and the ability to roll up his sleeves. I think there is nobody comparable running a trade association in Washington,” she said.