Small cable operators take more personal approach to lobbying

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Steve Donohue, FierceCableIt's not often that you get to see a regulator interact casually with cable executives, as FCC commissioner Ajit Pai did on Wednesday during an appearance at the American Cable Association Summit.

During a Q&A session with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka, Pai took questions from a room filled with small cable operators and network executives. One cable operator grilled Pai about his support for joint services agreements between broadcasters, which give TV stations greater leverage in their retransmission-consent talks with cable operators. Ovation EVP Brad Samuels, whose network was dropped recently by Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), asked Pai if he was concerned about a "diversity of voices" in cable programming. But most of Pai's appearance featured more light-hearted exchanges with Polka and cable executives. WideOpenWest CEO Colleen Abdoulah had the conference room rolling in laughter, as she noted how the 40-year-old FCC commissioner was "so young" and "cute" when she took the microphone.

ACA and its members take a much more personal approach to lobbying Congress and the FCC on key issues like retransmission consent compared to major cable operators such as Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable. Pittsburgh-based ACA scheduled 200 meetings for small cable CEOs with FCC and members of Congress this week. Comcast and Time Warner Cable have their own D.C. offices staffed with veteran lobbyists, and they're also represented in D.C. by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Seeing the small cable CEOs interact yesterday with Pai brought back memories of what cable looked like before the wave of consolidation in the late 1990s that left a handful of major cable MSOs controlling the industry. In 1997, soon after I began covering the industry while living in D.C., NCTA held an event called "In the Trenches Week," where cable CEOs went out into the field and showed that they knew how to operate a bucket truck. I covered one of the events in Northern Virginia, where the late Jim Robbins, the former CEO of Cox Communications, former NCTA CEO Decker Anstrom, and Glenn Jones, the founder of Jones Intercable (later acquired by Comcast), visited a cable crew in the field.

Those were also the days when a reporter could directly call Comcast vice chairman Julian Brodsky or former Continental Cablevision CEO Amos Hostetter. While the major MSOs aren't as accessible, ACA member companies are more willing to talk about key issues impacting their cable systems.

Soon after Pai's appearance, Polka, Abdullah and other cable CEOs had lunch with reporters in D.C., and took questions on topics ranging from usage-based broadband to programming costs. We learned about the different approaches major MSOs and smaller operators have to offering subscribers access to online video. While Time Warner Cable has invested in an app that lets subscribers access to 300 networks through Roku set-tops, Wave Broadband CEO Steve Friedman explained how his company offers subscribers the ability to rent Roku boxes for $5 monthly.

Abdullah talked about how she'd like to be able to offer subscribers the ability to bundle Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) subscriptions with their programming packages, but that deals cable networks have with studios won't allow for it. WOW is still looking at ways to experiment with other ways to offer subscribers Web video programming, she added.

And Massillon Cable TV president Bob Gessner talked about the challenges smaller operators face in offering TV Everywhere content to subscribers. While TV Everywhere technology supplier Synacor is helping operators package multiplatform content, he noted that it can take up to 10 weeks to add a single network. "You can't add them fast enough," Gessner said.--Steve