A la Carte on Cable’s Menu?

Feb 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The cable TV industry’s heated opposition to a la carte proposals could melt altogether if consumers demand the option to pick and pay for only the basic program networks they want.

That is one of the revelations being offered by Kyle McSlarrow, the cable TV industry’s new chief Washington spokesman, who begins his gig as president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association on March 1.

“It is a consumer-driven market,” Mr. McSlarrow said during a luncheon session with reporters last week. “That’s the way it should be.”

But walking a fine line, Mr. McSlarrow, the 44-year-old Republican insider the NCTA board hired to lead the industry through the regulatory minefields of a GOP-controlled Washington, said he doesn’t believe a government a la carte mandate is desirable or necessary.

“It’s very difficult when legislators get into issues of how you market and package things,” said Mr. McSlarrow, who described himself as an anti-abortion candidate with libertarian leanings who had the support of the National Rifle Association during his two unsuccessful runs for a seat in Congress.

On another policy issue of note, Mr. McSlarrow made clear that he supports the cable TV industry’s opposition to extending the government’s broadcast indecency enforcement regime to cable.

Concerned parents already have ways to block objectionable cable programming, he said.

“I’m not comfortable anytime the government gets into the space of controlling content,” Mr. McSlarrow said.

In addition, the incoming NCTA chief said he is aware that tensions have been escalating between some cable programmers and multiple system operators, with MSOs blaming programming cost increases for spiraling rate increases for consumers, increases that have been drawing negative reviews from key legislators. The NCTA represents both cable networks and MSOs.

“My role is to listen a lot and find the common ground,” Mr. McSlarrow said, adding that conflicts of interests among NCTA members could force the association to sit out some policy debates. “NCTA’s role is to represent the entire industry.”

A former deputy secretary at the Department of Energy who previously served as a top aide to former Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., Mr. McSlarrow has no background in the cable TV industry-and that’s a blank in his resume he’s rushing to fill.

One of his first initiatives as NCTA chief will be to launch a strategic review at the association.

“I’m going to be questioning everything,” he said. “I will not be afraid to make a change if it’s necessary.”

Industry sources said Mr. McSlarrow was hired chiefly for his legislative expertise and GOP connections, which the industry needs now particularly because lawmakers are embarking on a major review of the nation’s telecommunications laws, including provisions of critical concern to the cable TV industry.

“We’re in three major businesses-video, broadband Internet, and we’re in the telephone business,” said a cable TV industry source. “Each of the statutory provisions dealing with each of those businesses is in play, and no one can tell you how they’re going to come out.”

But Mr. McSlarrow said he has also been charged with helping the NCTA’s board members come to consensus on the issues.

“[NCTA members] have serious day jobs,” Mr. McSlarrow said. “They were looking for someone who could pull it all together.”

Though largely a stranger to the industry, Mr. McSlarrow said he pitched himself to outgoing NCTA President and CEO Robert Sachs for the association’s executive VP slot, shortly after Mr. Sachs was hired at the association in late 1999. At the time, Mr. McSlarrow was wrapping up his responsibilities as national chairman for Dan Quayle’s 2000 presidential campaign at the time, and he said Mr. Sachs told him the position had already been filled.

As former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s staffer, Mr. McSlarrow said he got to know former NCTA President Decker Anstrom-the co-chair of the NCTA search committee that hired Mr. McSlarrow to succeed Mr. Sachs.

“Decker was a pro,” Mr. McSlarrow said.