NCTA President-CEO Kyle McSlarrow has been relying on help from Barbara York since he joined the organization in March 2005. He came to NCTA from a position as U.S. deputy secretary of energy, and in his early tenure he faced a steep learning curve about the cable industry. He talked recently with TelevisionWeek,/i> correspondent Debra Kaufman about his first encounter with Ms. York and how she has helped to make the NCTA more effective.
TelevisionWeek: When did you meet Barbara York? When you became NCTA president-CEO in 2005?
Kyle McSlarrow: Yes. She’s somebody I met the first day of my job. That seems like 10 years ago, not two, but it’s not her fault. She’d been doing her job at the NCTA for 25 years, and because of the position she’s had in terms of managing the Cable Show and the Vanguard Awards, our annual recognition of senior executives in the industry, and also managing the CableACE Awards, which were our Emmys, Barbara knows everybody in the industry, literally everybody. She is a great resource in connecting the dots — where was this person employed before, what their experiences were, their relationships with other people — and she continues to this day to do this. She just fills in the blanks for someone like me. Although I’m immersed in the policy side and the nuts and bolts of what we’re doing, there’s a lot I miss, and she’s there for me in that regard.
TVWeek: What role has she played during your tenure as president-CEO?
Mr. McSlarrow: She has done three big things during my tenure, two of them continuing projects. She has had a continuing responsibility for administration, which she’s done since the late 1980s, and that includes finance, accounting and human resources. And then the other big responsibility she has is that she is the architect of the Cable Show each year, which is an enormous endeavor. There are so many people throughout the industry, so many planning committees, so many logistics — and she does it so well. I tend to be a little bit of a micromanager — some people would say I’m a lot of a micromanager — but I don’t worry about the show at all. She says, here’s a phone call you need to make, and why, and I do it. This will be my third Cable Show, and the first two were spectacular, due in large part — although she’s quick to praise other people — to her.
The third thing she’s accomplished during my tenure was a one-off. I dumped a very large responsibility on her, which took most of last year. We were at the end of our lease at the old headquarters on Dupont Circle, and we had a choice as to stay and rehab the facility or move. She was responsible first for the basic decision of staying or moving, then the site selection, and finally the building out of new space near Capitol Hill. It’s a fantastic, unique facility, not just great office space. I wanted to showcase the industry in a special way, so I wanted to do a Broadband Home that demonstrates the cable TV, Internet, phone service that the industry offers. She took just that idea and produced a great facility on the first floor, which is attracting a lot of positive comments on how we’re trying to drive innovation.
There’s been a Broadband Home on the exhibit floor for at least a couple of years. That’s what I wanted. Everyone in the industry saw the Broadband Home at the Cable Show, but I wanted the Washington, D.C., policy-makers to see it. In some ways, it’s cooler here. The Broadband Home is great on the exhibit floor, but you don’t cart this one away. It stays here, and we can make changes to it. We have a living room, playroom, kitchen and office to show how each of the features and services we provide can affect people’s daily lives. I gave her some input and she would ask me if we should do this or that, but far and away most of the input was provided by her. I’m not the creative person — she is.
TVWeek: What is her role at NCTA beyond what we know about from her title? How is she indispensable to the organization?
Mr. McSlarrow: It’s true that her most visible role is the Cable Show, but she’s part of my senior team, so there are a lot of ways she participates, on the policy side and so on. When we have special events, she’s naturally someone I look to. A couple of years ago, we decided to create the Leaders in Learning board to honor educators from around the country. We do a lot through our Cable in the Classroom, an arm that provides free high-speed Internet to 80,000 schools and libraries throughout the country. We also provide educational content to those schools. Whether they take it or not, it’s available to all of them. So we have a very longstanding, deep relationship with the educational communities, PTAs and the like. We decided we wanted to start honoring teachers who were innovative in the use of Internet and high-speed Internet. We came up with that idea in 2005 and gave her the responsibility of choreographing that event. That will begin to be a more visible event. That’s the kind of special project that Barbara does. She has a broad skill set, so I feel free to use it. She’s never let me down.
TVWeek: One of Ms. York’s duties is primary responsibility for the NCTA convention and exhibition. How has the show changed and improved under her stewardship?
Mr. McSlarrow: That’s hard for me to judge because of my arrival only two years ago. I know that, largely because of the economy, the show has ebbed and flowed, and that’s something out of our control. But what is neat about Barbara is that she always approaches each year with fresh ideas. And she’s always open to new ideas from other people. The first show, I’d only been here a month and it was locked. Last year, I thought we should maybe add some new things. I mentioned them to her and she said, great, let’s make it work. And she’s done it again this year. You can give her ideas that maybe aren’t that well fleshed out, but she can go and make them work. A lot of the same people go back to the show year after year, and we have to keep it fresh. The industry is also changing, so that makes it easy. Because Barbara is so immersed in talking to senior executives, technical people, marketers, she knows very well all the changes taking place, just by virtue of creating the show.
TVWeek: What have her biggest achievements been during her time at NCTA?
Mr. McSlarrow: One thing that did precede me that I know was very important was that she was the executive director of what was then called the National Academy of Cable Programming and the CableACE Awards, which were a big deal for the industry. They rolled it into the Emmys eventually. But it was on a big scale, and that was a big highlight for the industry. What she’s done with the Vanguard Awards is also a big deal. And, of course, the Cable Show is her preeminent achievement. Those are the highlights. We’re an interesting organization because we have both sides of the house, the cable operators and the programmers, and there is a history of the groups working together, which makes this industry unique. Barbara doesn’t just see both sides, she’s been a part of both sides.
TVWeek: Since she has been at NCTA for so long, how much does she act as the organization’s historian?
Mr. McSlarrow: There are several people here who are longtime employees, but she is part of that institutional memory, along with three or four others. She certainly contributes to that role, but she doesn’t take it on. It’s as needed.
TVWeek: Are there special talents that she brings to the job?
Mr. McSlarrow: Totally aside from the fact that I regard her as a really good friend. … What I look for in people, as a CEO, is are they reliable? Will they come up with good ideas and not just rely on me? Are they creative? Do they take someone else’s ideas and make them special? And, the most important question, do they have integrity? She’s an A-plus on all those categories.
TVWeek: What’s her role in the NCTA going forward?
I think that, certainly since I’ve been here, she’s always been one of our most respected senior professionals, and that obviously will continue. A lot of what her role will be depends on the challenges going forward. I’ve given her new assignments and she is capable of doing many different things. The good thing is that if there is a really hard project, there is at least one person who can take the assignment. Sure, others could take on the job, but you know you’ve got Barbara and that’s a great way to have an organization run.
TVWeek: Any last thoughts?
Mr. McSlarrow: On a personal note, Barbara is a delight to work with. She’s a very good person, funny. Even with a bear of a project, she always keeps a good sense of humor. I have a sense of people and the loyalty they engender. I can tell that people who work for her are very loyal. She’s very good to them. She goes out of her way to tell me that a person I may not see a lot is doing well. She goes out of her way to praise other people, and I really respect that.