Interview Date: September 8, 2023
Interviewer: Rob Stoddard
SACHS Hello. I’m Rob Stoddard, formerly of NCTA, the Internet and Television Association, AT&T Broadband, MediaOne, Continental Cablevision, and CATA, the Cable Telecommunications Association. On behalf of the Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the theater and headquarters of NCTA for this installment of the Hauser Oral History Project. We’re recording this conversation on Friday, September 8, 2023. Our guest is a cable industry leader, icon, pioneer, entrepreneur, and intrapreneur, my friend, Robert Sachs.—
ROBERT SACHS: Thank you, Rob.
STODDARD: As we’ll discuss, Robert’s the former president and CEO of NCTA, then known as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and he led the legal and corporate affairs group for Continental Cablevision and its successor, MediaOne. Continental of course was the blue-chip multiple system operator (MSO) founded by Amos Hostetter and Irv Grousbeck in 1963 and sold to US West Media Group in 1996. Finally, for full disclosure I had the privilege of working for Robert when he served on the board of CATA, later at Continental and its corporate headquarters in Boston, and then finally for three years here at NCTA. So we have some joint experiences we’re likely to discuss in this conversation. Robert, how does it feel to be back here at NCTA?
SACHS: Rob, you know, it’s been almost two decades since I headed the organization and as we sit here today at NCTA’s 25 Massachusetts Avenue headquarters, it’s a different location than in my day. Then we were at 17th and Mass, about 10 minutes from here, which in its time was close to the FCC and very convenient. The FCC has moved twice since and as I was leaving NCTA, Barbara York, whom as you know headed industry affairs for us, commenced a search for new space because our lease was coming up. Capitol Hill seemed like the right place for NCTA to be. And from what I understand, this facility has worked out better since folks are now on two floors and we were continually up and down on seven at 1734 Mass Ave. So, there’s a lot more opportunity here for staff inter-action.
STODDARD: We should set the time period for our viewers. You ran NCTA from 1999 to 2005, if memory serves.
STODDARD: And what jumps out, leaps out, at me during that period was that it was really the birth of the broadband era. What were the issues you were facing during those days, what did you have to come to terms with leading this great industry and this association?
SACHS: Indeed, broadband was still very new. In 1999 the industry had fewer than a million high speed internet customers. Going back further to my Continental days, we first demonstrated cable modem service at the Museum of Science in Boston in ’94. It was something that was brand new at the time. The $400 modem we demonstrated was the size of a sewing machine. However, the industry was stressed for capital at that point because of rate regulation resulting from the ‘92 Cable Act and so broadband was rolled out slowly through the 1990s. By the time I joined NCTA in ‘99 the ’96 Telecommunications Act rate deregulation provisions had taken effect so the industry was once again looked favorably upon by Wall Street. Capital was freed up and operators could again invest in plant, making broadband deployment possible. Following the landmark ’96 Telecoms Act, the challenge over the next decade became how to establish a deregulatory environment for our new broadband service. Consequently, our overriding policy goal during this period was to ensure that operators could invest with confidence and broadband could be deployed without regulatory shackles. And, of course, there were some powerful interests seeking just the opposite.
STODDARD: We’re going to talk about some of that. Looking back now, 25 or 30 years in the rearview mirror, are you surprised that the way that broadband has essentially become our core communications platform?
SACHS: Not really, because even then the growth the industry experienced during the first decade of the 21st Century was dramatic. The industry had fewer than a million cable modem customers in 1999; by the beginning of 2005 about 20 million. The growth trajectory was fantastic. High speed internet is a service that consumers demanded. Unfortunately, to this day not all areas of the country — particularly in rural America and some urban pockets, have broadband available. Congress has appropriated billions to extend broadband to these areas. But today an overwhelming majority of Americans have broadband available, many with a choice of two or more providers, and broadband has become our core communications platform.
STODDARD: Let’s hone in on your story a little bit. You may not have been the obvious choice to run NCTA in 1999. Tell us a little bit about how your background fed into your ability to take the reins.
SACHS: Yeah, from outside the industry I probably would have made that observation myself but in fact I had been involved in cable since the mid ’70s and significantly involved in cable regulatory matters. While I was going to law school at night I took a job with Rep. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) who had been elected to the House in the Watergate class of ’74. Tim was new to the Communications Subcommittee and new to Congress. I had attended Columbia Journalism School so had some background in mass media and First Amendment issues. However, when Tim hired me, neither he nor I fully appreciated that the Communications Subcommittee’s jurisdiction covered a lot more, including cable TV and telecoms matters. So I went to work for Tim in July 1975 as a legislative assistant. Communications policy issues were one of my principal areas of responsibility, so for me this provided an “on the job” introduction to cable. Tim represented the Denver, Colorado area including Boulder County and the western suburbs of Denver.
To learn about cable, then often referred to as CATV, we went to visit a local cable system. Glenn Jones had one nearby in Englewood, Colorado and had invited us to come out. It was the first time either Tim, a future Communications Subcommittee chair, or I had visited a cable system and headend. Glenn was a great host and teacher so for me this was where it all began. And here we are today, nearly 50 years later and it’s been an incredible journey.
STODDARD: Where I was going with this is that today in 2023 when we look at kind of the pantheon of CEOs for major trade associations in Washington, DC, it’s not unusual to find a former FCC chair, former Member of Congress, or senior executive coming from the White House. You were an inside guy. You were a cable choice for that job in ’99, were you not?
SACHS: I was, but really for almost 25 years I had worked in and with government at the federal, state, and local levels. In July 1979 I joined Continental as director of corporate development—doing municipal franchising. The Company had about a quarter of a million customers at the time and when we sold in 1996 close to five million. Much of that growth resulted from local franchises that we won and built. This entailed a lot of dealings at the state and local level. When franchising wound down in the mid-1980s new regulatory issues arose and my job responsibilities shifted. I headed legal and regulatory activities for Continental, interacted with members of Congress, and the FCC. Given my prior Hill and Executive Branch experiences, the public policy arena was very familiar to me, most certainly at the FCC. However, I wasn’t what you’d consider a “Washington insider;” I was a “cable guy.”
Going back 20, 30 years before I was at NCTA several of my predecessors were “Washington insiders.” In the mid-70”s I had the chance to work with Bob Schmidt. Bob had been a lobbyist with International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), a multinational conglomerate, for 10 years and though unfamiliar with cable TV, knew Capitol Hill extremely well. And after Bob, Tom Wheeler having come from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and been Bob’s EVP at NCTA also had a strong lobbying background. Then Jim Mooney, whom I first met when he was House Democratic leader John Brademas’s chief legislative strategist, succeeded Tom as NCTA president, having served as his EVP. And Decker Anstrom, my immediate predecessor as NCTA president, had worked in policy positions in the Carter Administration before being hired as Jim’s EVP. My background was different, though perhaps somewhat similar to Decker’s, but at the start of the 21st century, as the industry launched its new broadband business, NCTA needed to have a leader who not only possessed Washington experience but a working knowledge of the business and the issues it faced.
Moreover, NCTA had a very, very talented staff to support its CEO. In addition to the government relations and legal teams, we had a number of outside lawyers and lobbyists. So managing and coordinating these resources and mapping strategy to achieve our policy goals were the truly essential skills to have.
STODDARD: It was at that moment in time not necessarily a guarantee that broadband would roll out as ubiquitously and prolifically as it has. You had a number of regulatory and legislative hurdles to overcome to kind of clear the field. What do you recall? What did you face when you stepped in here in ’99?
SACHS: Though the ’96 Act had deregulated cable rates and made it possible for renewed investment so operators could upgrade their plant to deploy broadband services, it left undefined how broadband was to be regulated.
Was it to be a very lightly regulated information service or was it to be a telecommunications service with telephone company common carrier type regulation? And there were a number of powerful interests who wanted to subject the cable industry to common carrier type regulation and that would have killed investment, and broadband would have been stillborn. So that was our challenge and so we were able to, with a lot of hard work by NCTA, supplemented by the companies Washington representatives, convince the FCC that cable should be very lightly regulated as it launched broadband services. In the end, the Commission defined broadband as an information service. It’s ruling was tested all the way up to the Supreme Court in something called the Brand X decision. We prevailed there as well. On the other side of this issue were Microsoft and Yahoo and Disney, as well as some national consumer groups. A few of NCTA’s members also had other commercial interests so wanted cable to be effectively a dumb pipe. This was not a viable business model for most operators.
STODDARD: So in what way — how did you manage to prevail? Was it on the merits of legal argument? Was it just on the strength of the business opportunity? How would you describe that?
SACHS: There was great interest on the Hill and at the FCC in this new service and so I think it was really the strength of the argument together with growing consumer demand for high speed internet. People had been exposed to frustratingly slow dialup internet service. You may remember the annoying dial-up tune to access AOL. And should I mention AOL was on the other side of this issue too? And so the idea of a service that was 50, 100 times or more faster, enabling consumers to exchange and download video files, and play interactive video games, was pretty exciting. And when you see where we are today, more than two decades later, and how huge files can be downloaded in seconds, it continues to get better and better.
STODDARD: I would be quick to point out that it wasn’t just broadband that was on the marquee in those days. There were huge developments in video on demand, multichannel video, and HDTV. As I recall, we were preparing for a digital TV transition coming down the line. One of the things you’re given huge credit for was always remembering that the programmer community comprises essentially half of the NCTA universe, or it did during that era, and there were always great tensions between the programmers and the system operators, but you have received very high marks for keeping those two groups together. How did you do it?
SACHS: This was one of the internal organizational challenges and though in terms of membership programmers may have made up half our member companies, in terms of NCTA dues probably three-quarters or more came from operators. So I think NCTA could fairly be viewed an operator oriented organization, but from the programmers’ standpoint being at the table and being able to influence decisions was of great value. As you know, the NCTA Board is an all-CEO board, so NCTA was a great meeting place outside of board meetings, at dinners, in the hallways, etc. for CEO’s to talk. It got tougher over time when there were some very high-profile business disputes over programming costs between operators and programmers. But operators equally valued having programmers as members. The Canadian Cable TV Association had fractured over operator-programmer conflicts, to the detriment of all. So one of my top priorities was to keep everyone in the tent.
Rob, you had mentioned the digital TV transition. One of the other very big issues that we faced, and I’m happy to say dealt with successfully at the FCC, involved the digital television transition. The broadcast industry wanted the Commission to give them the same protections that they had gotten from Congress in 1992 for government-mandated must-carry of analog broadcast stations. Only this time with digital capacity emerging they wanted their complete digital signal which meant as many as half a dozen video channels per broadcast station required by law to be carried on cable systems. For us that was a nonstarter and so the issue was highly contested. And the broadcasters were an influential force in Washington. Most local news was still on broadcast television. This carried a lot of weight on the Hill. Eddie Fritts was my counterpart at NAB and a seasoned and skillful opponent. But again, we had the better public policy argument. Broadcasters were for the most part unable to say what it was they were going to do with all those channels. Were they simply going to offer digital duplicates of what they were already carrying? Public broadcasters, on the other hand, were pointing to new channels that their industry was creating which included public affairs and educational and cultural programming, content that consumers might value.
We spent almost five years lobbying multi-channel must carry at the FCC and again, our strategy was what led to our ultimate success. I had assessed in individual meetings with the five commissioners that most were only really concerned about the future of public media, public broadcasting. What made our case difficult politically was that APTS, the Association of Public TV Stations, and PBS, had joined forces with the NAB and other broadcast organizations in their lobbying campaign for multi-channel must-carry. The fact that NAB and PBS used the same DC communications law firm reinforced this alliance.
So I talked to our Board and said, “I have an idea… If we could work out a voluntary carriage deal with the public broadcasting community, then I think we could divide the broadcast industry and likely avoid the Commission ever granting multichannel digital must-carry.” There was some skepticism. Could we carry this off? Could we sure how the Commission would vote if we did a voluntary deal with public broadcasters? Would such a deal be acceptable to networks like A&E and Discovery?
It took 18 months of discussions and negotiations to bring a deal to fruition. At first I met monthly and eventually almost weekly with John Lawson who headed the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS). As negotiations proceeded, both our staffs, Jill Luckett and Diane Burstein at NCTA and Lonna Thompson at APTS, were heavily involved. John kept PBS well informed about the progress of the negotiations. And in the end we reached a “win-win” agreement to present to our respective boards. By this time, based on numerous conversations I had had at the FCC, I felt quite confident the Commission would reject multi-channel must-carry if public TV stations were “taken care of.” So cable operators offered to voluntarily carry up to four channels of non-duplicative noncommercial programming per PTV station in each market. As a condition of the deal, public broadcasters would withdraw from the commercial broadcasters multi-channel must-carry lobbying campaign. These commitments would be contractually enforceable. Our boards signed off. The digital carriage agreement with APTS and PBS led ultimately to the cable carriage of noncommercial channels like “World” and “Create,” new Spanish language programming and other educational content. We signed the inter-industry agreement in early 2005 and two or three weeks later the FCC voted to reject multi—channel must carry. So I take real pride in having helped create a favorable regulatory environment for broadband services to be deployed, and for cable operators to be able to use their digital bandwidth efficiently. Since this freed up cable bandwidth, it benefited cable program networks too, and enabled the cable industry to offer more high-definition (HD) channels and thrive in the broadband era.
STODDARD: And I would observe, however, that the deal that you cut with public broadcast stations really went beyond being transactional. While, as you described it, it was a great tool in reaching a favorable public policy outcome, you believed very strongly in public media and you’ve been invested in public broadcasting for quite some time.
SACHS: Yes. This too goes back to an earlier stage of my career. My first exposure to public television was in the mid-1970s when, as I mentioned, I worked for Tim Wirth. At the time we were focused on children’s TV. Then, by happenstance, I got more deeply involved with public broadcasting when I worked as a full-time consultant for the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, OTP. This was during the Carter Administration.
It was actually Nick Miller, who recruited me. Nick’s name may be familiar to some in cable because he later made his career representing municipalities, often suing cable companies, but this was long before that. I first had met Nick when he was chief counsel to the Senate Communications Subcommittee and worked for Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA), the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Nick had been hired to work for the Carter White House and he in turn encouraged me to come downtown and work on a project on cable deregulation. At the time another OTP consultant, Frank Lloyd, who later, at Mintz Levin, represented cable companies for many years, was at OTP overseeing public broadcasting matters. Several months after I got to OTP, Charlie Ferris, a former top staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, was named chairman of the FCC and Charlie asked Frank to be his chief of staff. So Frank moved to the FCC and I inherited his public broadcasting portfolio including long-term financing legislation. To set the date, this was in late 1977 or early 1978. So I got to know the public broadcasting community very, very well in that period and one of the things I’m most proud of is that Congress enacted the 1978 Public Broadcasting Financing Act, as proposed by the Administration. Among other things, the bill provided the first advanced year funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), providing greater stability and political insulation. So my public broadcasting relationships went back many years and this helped decades later when NCTA was working with the leaders of APTS and PBS. Establishing trust with the parties with whom you’re negotiating is vital.
STODDARD: I’ve always thought of you as one of the best negotiators and arbiters out there. Is that how you think of yourself as well?
SACHS: I’ve done a lot of negotiations, and also mediated a few disputes. . As I learned from my long-time friend and mentor Amos Hostetter, mapping your strategy is always key. You really have to know where you want to end up and what the best way or ways are of getting to that result. And I had done that – cutting my teeth doing franchising for Continental from 1979 through the mid ’1980s.
With respect to franchising, I started in New England and ultimately was deeply involved in Chicago, Staten Island and St. Paul. Each city or town is different and we’d be competing with anywhere from a handful to a dozen other companies The challenge always was to come up with the best strategy and figure out what was most important in each community. Continental was not the company that ever offered the most, or the lowest price. We were a company that were regarded for being credible and not overpromising. We made commitments we could keep. And as a result, we didn’t engage in litigation with cities. We had positive municipal relations. Even when it came to the 1984 Cable Act which deregulated cable rates and removed this authority from cities, the legislation wasn’t something that we had at the top of our priority list because we had sought reasonable rate increases and generally got what we sought. We had also gotten some early franchises renewed.
So the 1984 Cable Act was largely unnecessary for Continental. What made the ’84 Act of value for us was its prohibition on cable telco cross-ownership. We fervently believed the phone company, back then it was the AT&T monopoly and when AT&T was broken up, their “offspring,” the regional Bell companies, should not be able to own cable systems in their service areas and cross-subsidize that business from the monopoly telephone rate base.
But back to your question…I participated in quite a few negotiations with municipalities. After successfully winning franchises we still needed to hammer out municipal licensing agreements. Years later, after Rob Stengel and I founded Continental Consulting Group, I was asked by the City of Boston and Cablevision, Chuck Dolan’s company, to mediate Cablevision’s 10-year license renewal. In the end both parties were happy with the outcome. Some years later, shortly after NCTA, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge appointed me to be Special Master to resolve a dispute between Time-Warner Cable and a group of suburban communities around Charlotte, NC. Time-Warner had acquired the cable system serving the consortium in connection with its acquisition of part of Adelphia Cable. Though my role was more as an arbitrator, the negotiating skills I had gained over time proved helpful in resolving this dispute. It also helped that I knew the opposing attorneys very well, Nick Miller for the cities and Gardiner Gillespie for Time-Warner Cable, each of whom recommended me to the court.
STODDARD: We’re going to drop back in a few minutes and talk about your franchising experience much more in depth, but your mention of telco cross-ownership is interesting to me also because during the era that you ran NCTA, again from ’99 to ’05, cable companies for the first time were getting seriously into digital voice service too. That was the kind of the third prong of the triple play, right? Of the bundle. And I think the industry eventually fulfilled your own prophecy which you had mentioned in trade press and in other places that eventually cable would carve out a huge part of the voice telephone market. That was all happening during that period too.
SACHS: Yes. And to this day, and in that period the industry probably had less than 100,000 cable telephone customers in the late ’90s and by 2005 that number was about two and a half or three million. And with wireless mobile I’m sure what the total is today, probably more than 15 million. Back then it was voice over internet protocol phone service, or “VoIP” for short. Having invested billions of dollars in hybrid fiber coax networks, operations had considerable a bandwidth available and to earn a reasonable return needed to have multiple revenue streams. Cable operators were no longer simply in the one-way video business, retransmitting local broadcast stations and offering satellite delivered cable channels. We were now a fully two-way business with at least three revenue sources to support the enormous investment we were making.
STODDARD: At NCTA you were working with a very powerful board of directors comprising CEOs that in many ways were visionary, very forward looking. Can you talk a little bit about the board that you related with during those NCTA years? Who are the big personalities that come to mind and who did you work most closely with among that group?
SACHS: I tended to work most closely with the CEOs who were NCTA board chairs because I’d maintain pretty regular communications with them. To the extent I could I also tried to visit with other CEO’s around the country. When I started at NCTA, Jim Robbins was board chair, and again it’s one of these small world things. I had known Jim from the time I started at Continental — he had worked at Continental since the early 70’s but left to go work for Viacom a few months after I joined the Continental in 1979, but Jim remained part of the “Continental family.” I got to know him better a few years later when Continental took over the application of Vision Cable, Sid Knafel’s company, for the Staten Island franchise. (When Newhouse acquired Vision Cable, cross-ownership rules prevented Vision from pursuing its application because Newhouse owned the Staten Island Advance newspaper, so Sid called Amos to see if we’d be interested in Vision’s application for Staten Island.) Ultimately, two franchises were awarded for Staten Island, one to Continental and the other to Cox. By this time Jim had moved from Viacom to become President of Cox Cable. Staten Island is, as I recall, is about 14 miles long and maybe two miles wide with around 120,000 homes. It’s the smallest of the five boroughs. The logical way to divide it would have been across its width, but the deputy borough president divided it lengthwise. He presented us with a crude map, drawn with a crayon. Maybe it was Machiavellian and he thought would bring the two companies together. Whatever motivated him, this was the outcome. So I got to know Jim quite well because Cox and Continental had to put Staten Island back together. Ultimately we sold our 50 percent interest to a developer named Peter Gilbert who partnered with Cox.
Having known Jim for two decades before NCTA, we had a solid working relationship. Then Jim was succeeded as NCTA chair by Joe Collins, CEO of Time Warner Cable, a real giant in the industry. Joe understood the business, his business, having worked his way up the ladder in Time-Warner Cable. I always valued his wise counsel. Following Joe’s term as chair, I worked closely with Michael Willner, another hands-on, politically savvy, cable operator whom I had first become friends with when he worked with Sid Knafel at Vision Cable. Sid and Michael later started Insight Communications. Having also cut his teeth doing cable franchising, Michael was always willing to give his time when it came to appearing before Congress or visiting the FCC. Following Michael’s chairmanship, I had the privilege of working with Brian Roberts whose father Ralph, a true gentleman and entrepreneur, brought Brian into the company. Learning the business from Ralph, Brian succeeded him as Chairman & CEO of Comcast, taking it to the next level, building a very successful global media company. Brian has in-depth command of every aspect of the business, including the critical importance of government relations and imperative of working together as an industry. He was a wonderful partner to have as chair.
I hesitate go further down the path of naming CEOs for fear of leaving out someone inadvertently. As we sit here today its more than 18 years since I ran NCTA – Suffice it to say, there were many exceptional individuals with whom I had the good fortune to work .
STODDARD: I understand.
SACHS: However, and violating a little of what I just said, I should point out that there were many talented leaders— on the programming as well as the operating side.
Ted Turner served on the board when I joined the NCTA. A natural leader, entrepreneur and fierce competitor, I first had contact with Ted a decade earlier when Continental, Turner and TCI collaborated to create Cable in the Classroom. Bert Carp at Turner, Bob Thomson at TCI and I collaborated on that. I also remember first seeing the swashbuckling America’s Cup Champion testify on a panel before the House Communications Subcommittee in the mid- 1970’s, making a grand entrance into the congressional hearing room with a gorgeous female “assistant” on each arm.
A few of the other visionary program network CEO’s who stand out in my mind, and again there were quite a few, were John Hendricks, Nick Davatzes, Bob Johnson, Gerry Laybourne, Matt Blank and George Bodenheimer. I’m sure I’ve missed someone.
Though he never chose to serve on the NCTA board, Brian Lamb, the creator of C-SPAN, was a highly respected industry leader. Brian and I first met when he was a trade press reporter and I was on the Wirth staff. I remember him telling me about his seemingly audacious idea of creating a cable network devoted to Congress and public affairs. To his credit, Brian followed through on his dream and with the cable industry’s support and a great C-SPAN management team, created an incredibly valuable American institution. True to his fierce independence and journalistic integrity, C-SPAN always kept its distance from partisan politics and industry lobbying. The only issue I recall C-SPAN getting involved in was must-carry since guaranteed carriage of local broadcast stations directly harmed C-SPAN’s ability to secure carriage. I could always count on Brian’s friendship and support.
I’d be remiss not to mention a couple of other CEO’s who served on the NCTA board and whom I always looked to for counsel. John Evans, who built the Arlington, Virginia cable system, where C-SPAN had its first studio, and later partnered in owning other systems with Gus Hauser, is a wonderful humanitarian whose societal contributions extend well beyond cable. Frank Drendel, who founded and led CommScope for many years, was a technically savvy CEO, who always brought great value to Board discussions.
I guess this branch of our conversation started with talking about the NCTA selection process. But as you discerned, what made my selection as NCTA President unique was that I brought industry relationships and more than two decades of cable industry experience to the job. Consequently, I didn’t need to get to know quite as many industry leaders or learn the issues we faced and was able to hit the ground running. And, I should add, having worked closely with Amos for two decades prior provided a great introduction to other CEO’s.
STODDARD: Sorry to interrupt. Could you tell the rest of the story of how you became CEO of NCTA? As I recall, Leo Hindery plays a prominent role here too.
SACHS: During the spring of 1999 Leo was a frequent visitor to the Pilot House to see Amos. — Leo was chairman of AT&T Broadband at the time and, as you know, Continental was sold to US WEST in 1996. The company was then rebranded as MediaOne.
One of the reasons Continental went forward with the deal was that US WEST had assured Amos that the company’s headquarters would remain in Boston. But within a year’s time US WEST reneged on its promise, announcing plans to move the company’s headquarters to Denver. Amos resigned and a number of other senior management of Continental including me did too. To understand the degree of betrayal here, Amos was accustomed to doing deals on handshakes. To him, people’s word was their honor. Of course, terms of any deal would always be memorialized by the lawyers.
The acquisition of Continental Cablevision by US WEST was special for a number of reasons. Continental was the company Amos co-founded, worked tirelessly at for 33 years. At the time of its sale to US WEST Continental was the third largest company in the business—and the only one to ever receive CableVision Magazine’s coveted Bill Daniels Award, voted “Operator of the Year” by the readers of the magazine for three consecutive years. (After that, to “spread the wealth,” the editors of the magazine made the selection.) Amos felt he owed it to the people who had worked for him to keep the team intact as long as he could. After all, this was the team responsible for Continental’s success over the years and regarded by many as the best in the business. Since it had the financial resources to upgrade the company’s plant but lacked cable expertise, in some ways U S WEST seemed like a great match. In any case, being able to keep the corporate staff together in Boston was a key factor for Continental agreeing to the deal.
So fast forward a year or two. MediaOne, under US WEST management, is floundering. US WEST quickly discovered that cable TV was a more challenging business than its monopoly phone business. Leo, now at AT&T Broadband, comes to Boston to explore with Amos the idea of AT&T Broadband acquiring MediaOne. Amos had remained MediaOne’s single largest individual shareholder so still had a very deep financial stake in the company’s future.
While Leo was in Boston seeking Amos’s support, he shared with me that Decker had recently told the NCTA board he would be stepping down as NCTA President as soon as a successor could be hired. Decker had done a great job during his six years as president, guiding the industry from the depths of 1992 through enactment of the ’96 Telecom Act, but had become quite interested himself in getting into the content side of the business. This may have been a few weeks before Decker’s announcement was public. Though flattered Leo had thought to mention this to me, I told Leo “My life is here in Boston.” Rob Stengel, a Continental colleague and long-time friend, and I had recently started Continental Consulting Group. My wife Caroline was about to open a commercial art gallery. Family and friends were in New England and so I told Leo it was nice of him to tell me about the opportunity, but I was very content with life in Boston.
Leo was in and out of the Pilot House that spring and finally by May or June, with the NCTA search process formally underway, he raised the subject again, saying, “I really hope you’ll consider it. You’d be a good successor to Decker.” So I discussed commuting to DC with Caroline and with her support told Leo, “I’d like to consider this a little more.” Then I reached out to David Krone in the AT&T Broadband Washington office— Leo and David had a very close relationship— and discussed NCTA with him.
I had gotten to know David when Continental took over TCI’s Washington office lease following TCI’s acquisition by AT&T. From working with Bob Thomson and Doug Watts at TCI, I knew David’s political skills were strong, as were his DC connections. So as I thought more about the job, I felt very comfortable with the FCC portion of it. This was an arena I had played in for two decades. During the mid-90’s Continental had negotiated a social contract with the FCC and settled all 400 rate cases we had pending without ever having to rollback our rates. This effectively broke the back of rate regulation established by the 1992 Cable Act— Time Warner Cable then followed suit, negotiating its own global rate settlement. Looking forward, I felt I could be as effective as anyone with the FCC.
However, although I had worked on Capitol Hill in the mid-70’s and for the Carter Administration, I recognized there were others who would fit the bill better when it came to Congress. Since this was where I knew David had great relationships, I told him, “I’d seriously consider the NCTA job if you would join me.” From speaking with Decker I knew June Travis, a very capable former cable executive, was planning to leave as EVP of NCTA and that NCTA would need to replace her. So in the end I told Leo, “If I pursue this I want it to succeed and there’s somebody who’s very talented and whom you know very well who I’d want to hire.” Leo reluctantly agreed and so that’s when I said I’d speak with the search committee. I did and soon thereafter was offered the position. So that’s the back story. I might add that a few years after serving as EVP of NCTA, for both me and my successor Kyle McSlarrow, David was hired as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Chief of Staff.
STODDARD: If memory serves, ultimately you made the job work by retaining your residence in Boston, purchasing a condominium in DC, and spending the week in Washington and commuting back and forth.
SACHS: One thing that was still challenging was to be on a 6:30 U.S. Air shuttle Monday mornings and again most Friday afternoons. Sometimes Caroline would come to DC, but most of the time I’d return to Boston for the weekend. Mondays to Fridays, I’d work full days, often hosting breakfast or dinners with Members of Congress on either end. NCTA SVP Eleanor Winter, a politically astute fundraiser extraordinaire, had free rein with my schedule.
STODDARD: And I can attest you did work almost 24/7.
SACHS: Yeah, those were the early Blackberry days. The staff was very pleased when I told the senior team that each of them would be receiving a Blackberry. The staff thought it was a great idea until they started to get messages from me at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.
The long-distance commute worked from a job standpoint in that I could fully commit myself to the job during the week but could still fly home weekends, when not much was going on in DC. I originally had committed to NCTA for three years but ended up extending for five and a half. There were several other people who commuted from Boston whom I’d see on the shuttle Monday mornings and sometimes Fridays. Scott Harshbarger, a friend and former Massachusetts Attorney General was leading Common Cause at the time. I’d regularly see Scott and several other Boston-DC commuters. The group of us had nodding relationships, tacitly acknowledging the fact that we were all doing this crazy routine.
STODDARD: So I’d like to cover a couple of other things from the NCTA era and then drop back and talk a little bit more about your personal background. Something else you brought to NCTA was a particular sensitivity, kind of before it was talked about much, to diversity and equity in the business. Can you share a little bit of your thinking on this and what developed during that era?
SACHS: Yes. And I’ll tie it back to where I grew up. I was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York which is just north of New York City. When the composer George M. Cohan titled his song, “Only 45 Minutes from Broadway,” he was living in New Rochelle and at the time that’s probably what the train ride out to New Rochelle took. New Rochelle, like a lot of other northern cities, was effectively segregated and so I grew up going to school, at least elementary school, that was almost totally white. My junior high school, serving more neighborhoods, was more integrated and New Rochelle High, drawing on the entire city, certainly was. But even then there were stark differences in the demographics of college prep, business and vocational education classes.
As I was finishing my sophomore year, the son of Anne Schwerner, a NRHS science teacher, was one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi at the beginning of what became known as “Freedom Summer.” The June 1964 murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman shocked the nation and also were my awakening. The three, murdered by the KKK, gave their lives fighting to secure civil rights for all Americans. This prompted me and several of my classmates to put together a theater benefit to raise funds for the Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman Center, created to continue their work.
To bring this forward, when I arrived at NCTA — the cable industry’s work force was minimally diverse, but not in management ranks and certainly not at the corporate level. From my years in the industry, and Continental was no different in this regard, I was very aware of our deficiency, but now in a greater position to try to change things.
If you’ll permit me another Leo Hindery story…. Early on in my tenure he and I went over to the FCC to meet with FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, whom I had known when he was FCC general counsel, to share with him a couple of diversity initiatives NCTA was undertaking.
STODDARD: Kennard is African-American, right?
SACHS: Yes, the first African American FCC Chairman and a very good communications lawyer. The courts had recently thrown out the FCC’s EEO rules, and it didn’t take any persuasion for the NCTA board to decide that our industry should continue to abide by the EEO requirements, regardless of the fact that that they had been struck down. And so Leo and I went over to see Chairman Kennard to inform him of this and also to let him know that NCTA was creating a board-level diversity committee. And then Leo added, “NCTA is also launching an industry-wide minority vendor program.” When we left the meeting I looked at Leo…
STODDARD: Maybe this hadn’t been discussed before?
SACHS: And said, “Leo, when did NCTA decide to create a minority vendor program?” As I recall, he replied, “I thought it was something we ought to do.” Personally, I favored the idea but, of course, needed to go back to the Board and get everyone’s buy-in. It was standard operating procedure that any new industry initiative would always first be approved by the Board or Executive Committee. In this case, we had already told the Chairman of the FCC about the industry’s “plan,” so with full Board concurrence, the NCTA minority vendor program was launched.
Also during my first year at NCTA, through a NAMIC (National Association of Minorities in Communications) mentorship program, I volunteered to be a mentor. Patricia Keenan, then NAMIC’s, vice president, who was working at the time for I’m going to say Comcast, was my mentee.
STODDARD: TCI, I think.
SACHS: Actually, it may have been AT&T Broadband by then, and later Comcast. And so as Pat and I got to know one another, I learned more about NAMIC too. The more I learned about NAMIC’s programs, the more I came to believe that NAMIC deserved the industry’s full support. Around this time, the NCTA Board was interested in bringing the Walter Kaitz Foundation into NCTA . Some felt Kaitz wasn’t hitting on all cylinders and so I viewed this as an opportunity. Following discussions with Spencer (Kaitz) and the Kaitz Board, the Kaitz Foundation was brought under NCTA’s administrative umbrella. With Spencer’s blessing, we changed the business model. Going forward the Kaitz Foundation would function as a grant-making foundation; monies raised at its annual dinner would be distributed to organizations like NAMIC, Women in Cable, and the Emma Bowen Foundation. I’m happy to say that providing financial support to these organizations’ excellent but underfunded programs proved to be the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, the NCTA Board was still largely comprised of CEO’s who were white males. This was largely a reflection of the gender and race of industry CEO’s. I discussed with the Board our need to address this. Soon thereafter Oxygen Media CEO Gerry Laybourne and Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter were elected to the Board. Later Discovery general counsel Judith McHale succeeded John Hendricks as Discovery’s CEO and BET general counsel Debra Lee succeeded Bob Johnson as BET’s CEO and NCTA board member. This was merely a start but to provide context it was many years before “Me Too,” the murder of George Floyd, and events that have spurred a more recent national discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion. To their credit, the leaders of the cable industry understood that we needed to do better; and many of the companies undertook their own DEI initiatives.
Another thing we did was institute an annual joint board breakfast with the leaders of NAMIC. Sometimes we’d invite guest speakers. Xavier Becerra, then a congressman from Los Angeles who’s currently Secretary of Health and Human Services, was a leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. I had met with him in his House office and was so impressed that I invited him to come to New York to speak at the first joint board breakfast. The congressman talked about his community and the changing demographics of America. “I know in places like Los Angeles and San Antonio, Miami, New York, you recognize you have Spanish speaking customers, but what you don’t recognize is” — and he cited a long list of communities with diverse populations and said, “I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I’m telling you you’re missing a business opportunity.” And this resonated with the attendees, spurring actions including the addition of channels that were oriented towards Hispanic and Latino audiences and changes in company recruitment and hiring practices. So things were starting to come together. We still had a long way to go and the industry isn’t there yet, almost two decades later. Cable is not unique among industries facing diversity challenges. Still, I feel good that the industry was ahead of the curve when it comes to DEI.
STODDARD: Well, and congratulations on that too. It really did spur a major movement within the industry that, as you mentioned, persists to this day. In the interest of time, we need to move on to other aspects of your career, but in summation about your time at NCTA from ’99 to ’05, how would you characterize the major accomplishments and what legacy did you leave the industry with in ’05 when you moved on?
SACHS: Thanks Rob. With respect to public policy, I felt most proud about having helped create an atmosphere in which broadband and digital cable services could take hold. We were successful in virtually every activity we undertook at the FCC; in having broadband defined as an information service, in defeating multichannel must-carry, in getting the FCC to hold off imposing by negotiating an inter-industry agreement with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Likewise, we avoided any new legislative requirements.
Having enacted major legislation in 1996, there was some talk on Capitol Hill of revisiting the ’96 Telecommunications Act, but there wasn’t a fervor for it. Congress’s focus was primarily on implementation of the ’96 Act and oversight. There was also interest in a la carte pricing. So from time to time I’d be called upon to testify before the House and Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees. Of course, we’d regularly bring industry CEO’s to the Hill to tell Congressmen and Senators about our business. It was great not to have to be asking Congress for any favors. When an industry is largely deregulated, success is being able to maintain the status quo.
I also felt good that we didn’t have any programmers drop out of NCTA during my tenure despite the fact that there were some heated operator/ programmer disputes. I was speaking to the Washington Cable Club one day and Jim Robbins was speaking crosstown at the National Press Club. At the time Cox and ESPN were in a very high-profile dispute over programming fees. By the time I got back to NCTA I already had several press calls and a message from ESPN’s George Bodenheimer. As NCTA president, I steadfastly avoided taking sides in intra-industry disputes and as I counseled company executives, it’s never helpful to bring intra- industry business disputes to Washington. The Government is particularly ill-suited to solve them.
I also remember being asked to come up to New York to meet Mel Karmazin, CEO of Viacom, whom I hadn’t met before. A former radio group executive, Karmazin had been brought on by Sumner Redstone to run Viacom. The reason for this command performance was I had given a speech in Florida where I was quite critical of broadcasters’ retransmission consent and must-carry demands. (In addition to the CBS Television Network, Viacom owned multiple broadcast stations and cable programming networks.) In the case of retransmission consent broadcasters wanted to be paid for cable carriage of their free over-the- air signals. This was something we had opposed strenuously at Continental and the industry had fought and but got saddled with in the 1992 Cable Act. Nevertheless, opposition to retransmission consent and must-carry remained strongly held industry positions. Well, Mel Karmazin was not happy about my calling out CBS by name (CBS had lead the broadcast industry fight for retransmission consent), so I tried to explain to him that retransmission consent and must-carry were adverse to the interest of cable operators and for that matter, to most basic cable networks.
It wasn’t just programmer-operator relationships that occasionally spawned internal industry conflicts. I wasn’t two months into the job when I learned AT&T Broadband, which had just become NCTA’s largest member, was about to enter into an agreement with an independent ISP that basically ,would have transformed its broadband network into a “dumb pipe.”
As AT&T saw it, if cable’s new broadband networks were open to all users for the same price and terms, AT&T could use other operators’ networks to backhaul its telephone traffic. As I explained to AT&T CEO Mike Armstrong, who had just joined the NCTA Board, “AT&T’s telephone interests are not the interests of NCTA’s other operator members. That’s not what we do and so if you’re going to be doing this for your telephone company I understand, but it’s at odds with the business interests of the cable industry.” So, part of my job, always kept below the radar, was to keep member companies within the tent. And on occasion I needed to ask CEO’s to check their other corporate interests at the door and not expect NCTA to become advocates for them.
Although not quite the same, there was also the time that Brian Roberts called me to convey that Bill Gates had complained to him about NCTA’s criticisms of Microsoft for its advocacy of network neutrality requirements. (This was before net neutrality became a larger public policy issue.) Not too many years before Microsoft had invested a billion dollars in Comcast. I told Brian what we had said and to his credit, he didn’t ask us to back off our opposition to net neutrality. As always, he was very supportive of NCTA. Though probably not what Bill Gates had hoped for, the fact that we had gotten Gates’ attention said to me we were doing our job.
When Gates joined us a year or two later at the NCTA Show in Las Vegas he was not at all confrontational but rather trying to find a way to work with cable operators, even offering over dinner with half a dozen CEO’s to develop the software for the cable industry to price broadband on a usage sensitive basis. This telco pricing model was not one that cable CEO’s favored as they marketed new “all you can eat” broadband services to consumers. So despite the cordiality of the discussion Gates did not get any takers.
I’m happy to say we succeeded in keeping all the programmers and just about all the operators in the NCTA. Cable One, a smaller MSO that was the cable subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, which also owned broadcast stations, being the only exception.
STODDARD: And finally in this regard, how did your experience at NCTA shape your look on the rest of the world? Did you emerge a different person or did you feel a level of stability throughout that?
SACHS: Well, I had a life before NCTA and after NCTA — and while I was all-in for NCTA during those five and a half years, my personal interests are a lot broader.
As a 37-year cancer survivor, cancer has been part of my life for half my 74 years and because of this experience I’ve gotten deeply involved in care quality and patient safety, and my good fortune in being a long-term survivor, I’ve gotten deeply involved in patient advocacy and quality and safety issues. In 1998, prior to NCTA, I was invited to join the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I’m happy to say I serve as a governing trustee to this day. Being extremely grateful for the doctors and nurses who’ve treated me, and for family and friends who’ve stood by me, I’ve always wanted to give back by helping others diagnosed with this horrific disease. There was a 100,000-person march of cancer survivors and families in Washington, also in 1998, and I got involved in organizing the Massachusetts delegation to the march. I had attended a meeting where I found it troubling that the participating cancer organizations, American Cancer Society, disease-specific advocacy groups, hospitals and others who shared so much in common were having such a hard time collaborating.
As an individual survivor, unaffiliated with any of the groups, my only interest was in the success of the Cancer Survivors March. So I became coordinator for the Massachusetts delegation. My involvement in the march later led to me being invited to join the board of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS), a board I served on for 10 years and chaired the last three.
I also spoke earlier about my participation in public broadcasting during the Carter Administration. My strong interest in public broadcasting continued and, as mentioned, 25 years later, at NCTA, we negotiated a major agreement with APTS and PBS that benefited cable and enabled public TV stations to grow in the digital TV era. Returning to Boston after my NCTA tenure, I was invited to join the WGBH board. As you may know, GBH is the leading provider of content for PBS, about 35% of the national schedule, and the leading public broadcasting organization in New England. I served on the GBH board nine years until being term limited. Then, towards the end of my final term, I was invited to serve on the national PBS board which I did for three terms until I was term limited at the end of 2021. In addition to cancer care and public media, I have some other interests. However, during my five and a half years at NCTA, I was “all-in,” having little time for much else.
I tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, before and after NCTA to keep a better work-play balance and in recent years have done better. I worked hard but truly loved the 20 years I spent at Continental Cablevision. It was being part of a growth industry and the people I worked with more than anything else. At Continental, I thought we had the greatest pickup team I could imagine. We were a highly decentralized company and my office was at company headquarters in Boston where we had a very lean staff. When I started in 1979 there were only 8 or 9 of us. By 1996, there were about 60, a small fraction of what you’d have found then at any other major MSO. For nearly two decades I also worked with the folks in each of our eight or nine regions. Almost to a person they were exceedingly good at what they did. I’d say the same for the Pilot House corporate staff. Margaret Sofio, Bartlett Leber, Nancy Larkin, your predecessor Henry James and of course yourself were great to work with—as was the rest of the legal and corporate affairs team.
If lightning could strike twice, it did for me. I was lucky to have a similar work experience at NCTA. Previously, I only had a sense of NCTA from the outside. I knew Decker quite well. I knew Dan Brenner, Neil Goldberg, and some others in the legal department — David Nicoll — the late David Nicoll who was a dear friend. But I didn’t really know the 100 other people who worked at NCTA. Several months after starting at NCTA, a young staffer whom I had said hello to in the elevator, challenged me, “I bet you don’t know my name.” Confirming her suspicion, I apologized and never again forgot Nilda Gumbs’ name. (Not surprisingly, Nilda advanced in the organization and today, two decades later, is NCTA President Michael Powell’s chief of staff.) I also made a point of trying to get to know the rest of the staff.
And after my years there, I came away feeling the NCTA staff was really special too. They’re very professional, hard working, and dedicated to the industry. In fact, I’m not sure the industry fully appreciated at that time just how good a team they had in Washington. And credit for this belonged largely to my predecessors.
During my time the staff included a lot of the folks who Tom Wheeler, Jim Mooney and Decker had hired; many of those stayed for 10, 20, even 30 years or more. There were some like David Krone and yourself, hired during my time, who also became valuable contributors. But most of the staff preceded me at NCTA.
To me, NCTA felt like a family. People cared about one another. Going through the shared experience of September 11th only reinforced these bonds. So working alongside this wonderful team was a great personal experience too. But it was also good, after five-plus years, to step back and say there are other things I want to do in life. Being a long-time cancer survivor has always made me want to live life fully.
STODDARD: You mentioned that your journey started in New Rochelle and that you later acquired a particular set of skills that are unique in a lot of ways, a combination of journalism and law and ultimately public policy. Can you walk us a little bit through your adolescence into your college years? And I would love for you to tell the story about your relationship with Daniel Ellsberg as well, which is really fascinating.
SACHS: Okay, the Ellsberg chapter is not part of the corporate bio, but I’d be happy to share it. First, by way of personal background, I grew up in suburban New Rochelle. My father, Monroe Sachs, worked 51 weeks a year in the lace and embroidery manufacturing business that my maternal grandfather had founded. My father’s example (work hard, don’t cut corners, treat people fairly) was ingrained in me from an early age. My mother Norma was a homemaker and the person who was always there for my older brother David and me.
During high school I got involved in student government, serving first class as class treasurer and later as student body president. I always had a part-time job, whether it was delivering newspapers, shoveling snow, or looking after neighbors kids. One summer I was a junior leader on 92nd Street Y bike trips. I even tried selling Fuller Brush…
STODDARD: I did that too. We should compare notes.
SACHS: Yes, and as you may appreciate more than others, people would see this kid at the door and probably think, “What’s this kid doing here?” The one thing I remember about the job, and I had not done door to door sales before – though they did train you for two days — was that when they opened the door the first thing you were told to do was put down your sample case between the door and the door jamb so they couldn’t close it on you. And then you’d introduce yourself and then they’d often say, “I’m not really interested in buying anything today.” You may have had the same experience. And then I’d say, “Oh, that’s fine. We’ll be back through your neighborhood next month. Meanwhile, I’d like to leave you with a small gift.”
STODDARD: Like a potato brush?
SACHS: You got it! I’d say, I have for you a potato brush, a lipstick, whatever, which were always at the bottom of the case. So I’d take everything out, get to the bottom, give them their gift, and then, as I put the brushes and other items back in, try to make a sale. There was so much rejection. During the course of knocking on doors three or four hours — it was a part-time job – I’d be lucky to sell a few brushes, earning a few dollars an hour, actually good money for a high school kid in those days. But door to door sales were not for me. After high school graduation, I carried mail for the Post Office for two summers. In contrast to my Fuller Brush experience, most people on my routes welcomed me at their door.
Following high school I attended the University of Rochester in upstate New York. The most momentous thing that occurred during this period was that my father died unexpectedly during the spring of my sophomore year. I was 19 at the time and his death was incredibly hard on my mother, David and me. You know, decades later, as I look back, I didn’t know my dad all that well but as 19-year-olds, I don’t know how many of us really know our parents? At that age, you’re still a teenager, not quite an adult. Not getting to know my father better or having the opportunity to share my adult life with him are my biggest regrets in life.
I knew my father had been a B-24 pilot during the Second World War. Flying his 14th mission his plane was hit badly by enemy fire returning from bombing an aircraft factory in Regensburg, Germany. The aircraft limped back as far as the former Yugoslavia, where the crew needed to bail after three engines failed before the plane crashed into a mountain. It’s part of a longer story that I’ve pieced together from military records over the years. My dad never talked about his war experience, how half his crew, included himself, were rescued by the Yugoslav partisans; the other half picked up by the Nazis. About 10 years ago I retraced his escape route, visiting Bosnia and Croatia (part of the former Yugoslavia) with my brother David – It further connected me to my dad.
April 1968, the month he died, was a very tumultuous period in American history. Looking back, his death caused me to take charge of my life a lot sooner than otherwise I probably would have done.
STODDARD: It was the same month that —
SACHS: Martin Luther King was assassinated earlier in April. The Vietnam War was raging. There were riots on college campuses. I recall Columbia University where buildings were occupied by a group known as SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. In early June, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered by an assassin. Between my father’s death and all that was going on, I didn’t go back to college that semester. Didn’t hold much meaning for me. That summer I took a job working at the grill days and the front desk nights at a yacht club in Greenwich, Connecticut.
When I returned to Rochester in the fall of 1968, I decided with all that going on in the world around me I wanted to get involved in politics. There was a political science professor whose legislative process course I had taken sophomore year—Professor Richard F. Fenno, Jr. I didn’t know it at the time, but Professor Fenno was a leading scholar on the U.S. Congress. I approached him with an idea I had of working in a congressional office for part of my political science studies. I knew other students who were doing junior year abroad. Studying overseas didn’t appeal to me and so I approached Professor Fenno to ask if he would sponsor me if I could get a full-time internship in Washington, receive academic credit for it, and have the same tuition arrangement as students enrolled in junior year abroad. He loved the idea and said, “If you can get the university administration to sign off and find yourself an internship, I’d be happy to sponsor you.”
So this was how I came to Washington as a 20-year old and how the University of Rochester’s Washington Semester Program was born. I applied to maybe a dozen offices and was offered a few internship opportunities. After weighing them I decided to accept one with Senator Charles Goodell who had been appointed the previous year by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill the unexpired Senate term of Robert F. Kennedy. Goodell had been a Republican Congressman for a dozen years representing the Jamestown, NY area.
I began my internship in January 1969, and as I was coming over to NCTA today the walk brought back memories because it was this very neighborhood, just off Capitol Hill, where I roomed in DC, more than 50 years ago. When I began my internship with Senator Goodell, I stayed just a couple of blocks over on E Street— not to far from C-SPAN’s offices today. There was an old hotel, long since razed, called the Dodge House. I think I paid $75 a week. All I remember about staying there was that the walls of my small hotel room were a pale institutional green. The George Hotel and Bistro Bis occupy that block today. I never imagined that five decades later I’d be hosting a dinner there for Rep. Anna Eshoo, a member of the House Communications Subcommittee and her colleague fellow Northern California Representative and future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The neighborhood is also where I attended Georgetown Law School and contracted “Potomac fever.”
STODDARD: What appealed to you about Washington? What was it that really struck you?
SACHS: It was wanting to effect societal change, to make a difference in people’s lives. I know this sounds lofty but as a 20-year old I was very idealistic. As an intern you typically start in the mail room. There was a machine that sliced open envelopes and there were templates for replies to constituent letters of a policy nature. Then there was an autopen machine to sign the Senator’s name to the cherry-picked paragraphs we’d choose. More specific inquiries were routed to the appropriate staff member to draft a personal response for the Senator’s actual signature. I wanted to do more than sort mail so after finishing my mail duties got involved in soldiers rights issues involving Vietnam War protests, and migrant farm labor issues relevant to Upstate New York. One of the committees Senator Goodell served on was the Senate District Committee, so this gave me an opportunity to get involved in some DC housing issues too. Issues such as these appealed to me.
There’s a prequel to this story that I might tell. When I visited Washington the previous fall to seek an internship, Dave Bantleon, an aide to Congressman Mel Laird (R-WI), befriended me. (A year later he would serve as a senior staff member when Laird was appointed Secretary of Defense.) As I recall Dave invited me to have a drink — you didn’t often go out to dinner in those days — at the Hawk and Dove on Pennsylvania Avenue. There were some friends of his whom he wanted me to meet— Dave Rupert, a couple of years older than me, who was then working part-time in Senator Goodell’s office while attending college in DC, and his girlfriend Hillary Rodham. (This was before she met Bill Clinton at Yale Law School). Hillary had a Goodell connection too, having worked for him on the Republican Policy Committee staff when he served in the House. Meeting both of them reinforced my desire to pursue an internship in the Goodell office.
So I did and in January 1969 became a Goodell Senate intern for the spring semester and was invited to stay that summer when a new group of interns arrived. This was the summer of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. By July I was a “senior intern.” And again, in the small world of things, one of the new interns was a somewhat pudgy kid from Queens, NY, Charles Schumer. In truth, I don’t remember much else about him at that time but as I look back today, I find irony in the fact that both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer, later elected U.S. Senators with “D-NY” after their names, began their Washington careers working for the same upstate NY Republican office holder.
Later I discovered that congressional internships are how many in politics and government launch their careers. And one of the things I’m most proud of is that several hundred Rochester undergraduates have since participated in the U of R Washington Semester Program I started. In fact, Josh Shapiro, the recently elected Governor of Pennsylvania was a participant in the U of R Washington Semester program in the 1990’s, still run then by my mentor and lifelong friend Dick Fenno.
In September 1969 I returned to Rochester to complete my senior year. Being one of the most outspoken in the Goodell office on the subject of Vietnam, I was invited back that fall to sit in on a briefing that Senator Goodell’s legislative director had arranged for him. There were three defense experts who were brought in: Morton Halperin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Roger Hilsman, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Far East Affairs; and Daniel Ellsberg, a defense analyst at the Rand Corporation. (This was two and a half years before the Pentagon Papers were disclosed to the American public.) I was transfixed by their knowledge and expertise and remarked after that Ellsberg stood out as one of the brightest people I had ever encountered. He was so clear in his analysis of the war and the history of US involvement in southeast Asia.
Little did I know at that point that he had worked on and read most of the Top Secret 47-volume Pentagon Papers study, in addition to having served with the marines in Vietnam as a war planner in Vietnam.
After finishing college in 1970, I didn’t want to go to my graduation. The U.S. invasion of Cambodia and Kent State shootings had occurred that May so I just wanted to get out of the university environment. Upon completing my last exam, I departed for DC where at age 21, I became a legislative research assistant and the lowest paid member of the Goodell Senate staff. By then, however, he New York Senate race was in full gear. So much of the Senator’s time was spent in New York.
As part of his own evolution from war hawk to dove, he had become the first Republican Senator to introduce legislation calling upon Congress to cut-off funding for the Vietnam War. (A copy of S. 3000, “The Amendment to End the War,” hangs in son Roger’s NFL office today.) Goodell’s position on Vietnam and several other controversial issues would cost him Republican support, leading to his defeat in a three-way Senate race that November. So my second Capitol Hill stint lasted only seven months.
STODDARD: Buckley that won that race.
SACHS: Yes, Jim Buckley, the conservative candidate won as Goodell and Dick Ottinger, the Democrat, divided the liberal and independent voters. As he left office, Senator Goodell was invited to become a senior partner in a New York City law firm, and asked me to join him. In addition to practicing law, he intended to continue to be involved in public activities.
In June 1971 the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. Dan Ellsberg was identified as the Times’ source and indicted later that year, essentially for making the Pentagon Papers public. Having met Dan two and a half years earlier, and subsequently followed his insightful articles in the NY Review of Books, I wasn’t totally surprised. The formal charges, brought by the Nixon Justice Department, were espionage and theft of government secrets, charges that if proven could have resulted in Dan being sent to prison for the rest of his life. Dan retained a couple of extremely capable lawyers; Leonard Boudin, a renowned civil liberties attorney and Charles Nesson, a relatively young Harvard law professor who had clerked for two Supreme Court justices. However, he didn’t have anybody on his legal team who had relationships with people in Government who might testify at trial as defense witnesses. A lot of people in the Washington establishment considered Dan kryptonite. So Dan approached Charlie Goodell.
Having always liked and respected Dan and been inspired by Dan’s own conversion from Vietnam hawk to dove, Goodell agreed to become part of the Ellsberg legal defense team. I accompanied Mr. Goodell to Los Angeles for some pretrial activities and while there was put to work assisting the New York publicist, a press guy, who had been brought in to help the defense team. I stayed out in LA to help, and to make a long story short, he didn’t work out. So I was suddenly elevated to the position of coordinating press relations for the defense team in a trial that would span the next year’s time. So, as a now “seasoned” 24-year-old I worked closely with Dan and the legal team, and served as the principal point of contact for the national and international press covering the trial. In April 1973 the case was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Byrne, Jr. because of government misconduct involving wiretaps and illegally breaking into Dan’s psychiatrist’s office. Later Byrne revealed that during the trial the Nixon White House had even offered him the FBI Directorship. As we were packing up in LA, I was asked by Charlie Nesson to put together a summary of these events for him that had been requested by the Senate Watergate Committee staff.
At the time, I didn’t really think of all this as being part of history, but here many, many years later, and Dan Ellsberg just died at age 92 just a few months ago, the Pentagon Papers trial was one of the most noteworthy political trials of the 20th Century. The White House “plumbers” burglary of Dan’s psychiatrist’s office was a prelude to their 1972 attempted break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. President Nixon’s obsession with Dan and the leak of the Pentagon Papers led to a string of illegal White House activities, ultimately resulting in Nixon’s resignation from office.
So this was my Daniel Ellsberg connection. And during this period, going to court and living with members of the defense team in the same downtown LA apartment complex, I grew close to Dan and his wife Patricia. In fact, the summer after the trial, I lived at their Cambridge apartment since they were still in California.
STODDARD: At the Ellsbergs’?….
SACHS: Yes. I never even needed to lock the door because I knew the FBI was looking after the place. Seriously, and though our lives would take very different paths, during the early 1970’s, the Ellsbergs were a big part of mine. As I look back on my career, my involvement in the Pentagon Papers trial was a unique experience, though largely unrelated to what I did in the years that followed. With one exception… I always thought I’d go to law school, but during the trial got to know very well the reporters who specialized in covering high profile trials. There were some legendary reporters like Theo Wilson of the NY Daily News and Linda Deutsch of AP who had just come down to LA from the Charles Manson trial to cover the proceedings. After being around these reporters for a year, I wanted to do what they did. I thought it would allow me to combine my interest in law with journalism. So I worked for the Boston Globe the summer after the trial, and then attended a one-year journalism master’s program at Columbia University. During that year I visited Washington to see Fred Graham who later helped found Court TV. A long-time NY Times legal reporter, Fred was now the legal reporter for CBS-TV. We had gotten to know one another pretty well in Los Angeles.
Fred took me to lunch and said, “You really ought to think more about what you want to do — this is a great career, few make it, but you really ought to think hard about going to law school so you have something to fall back on if it doesn’t pan out.” And so I followed Fred’s advice which led to me going to law school at Georgetown. (Georgetown Law School Dean Adrian Fischer, a former U.S. diplomat, had testified for the defense during the Ellsberg-Russo trial, and encouraged me to apply.)
As I finished my Georgetown law degree at night and worked for Tim Wirth, I found that the more I got involved in the communications arena, not public relations/public affairs communications but mass communications, policies affecting broadcasting, cable and telecoms, the more I found communications to be a really exciting field. And so one thing kind of led to another —
STODDARD: So Fred was right, you fell back on it pretty well.
SACHS: I did. It was excellent advice. It didn’t lead me exactly where I had thought I’d end up. Through Tim Wirth I met Continental CEO Amos Hostetter. Amos and Jay Ricks, a top Washington communications lawyer, had come to the office and were talking to us about the seemingly esoteric subject of pole attachments. (During the course of our meeting it also turned out that Tim and Amos had met previously doing KP together at Fort Dix as Army reservists.) And so, there was this rekindled bond, and the subject of pole attachments turned out to be far more important than on first impression. Tim and I worked closely with Amos and Jay, as well as Bob Schmidt and Tom Wheeler at NCTA on what eventually would become the 1978 Pole Attachments Act, removing a major obstacle to the then fledgling cable industry’s growth. In the 1960’s and 70’s cable operators were held hostage by telephone and electric utility companies for attachments to existing utility poles. The 1978 Pole Attachment Act was the first cable law, in fact, the first time cable was recognized in a federal statute. Tom Wheeler, who led the lobbying effort on this for NCTA, deserves much of the credit for the bill’s enactment. As NCTA EVP, Tom stood out among the communications industry lobbyists whom the Wirth office worked with. Not surprisingly, he went on to become President & CEO of NCTA, and later CTIA, the Cellular Telecommunications Association before being appointed by President Obama to chair the FCC.
STODDARD: And you had a stint working for the Carter Administration as well. How did that develop?
SACHS: I mentioned earlier, Nick Miller had recruited me to come down and work on this cable project. This was July, 1977. I worked full-time for the Office of Telecommunications Policy in the White House (OTP) for a year largely on public broadcasting legislation because the cable project didn’t materialize. And then the Office of Telecommunications Policy was merged into the Commerce Department, which was somewhat of a letdown for all of us working for OTP. OTP was recast as NTIA, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, headed by Henry Geller, a brilliant lawyer and former FCC general counsel. Like Dan Ellsberg, Henry was one of the smartest people I ever met. He could sit in a meeting and on a yellow legal pad draft a brief, including citations. Henry’s knowledge of communications law was second to none. So I worked for Henry and NTIA General Counsel Greg Skall as legislative counsel for a year and then felt the writing was on the wall career-wise as the 2000 Presidential election approached.
By the spring of 1979 I had just turned 30, was single and mobile, and thinking what did I want to do? So I called, Amos Hostetter, whom I had gotten to know by then — at the time he still went by “Bud,” “Bud Hostetter,” who to me stood out among his cable peers, and inquired whether there might be any opportunities with Continental. “We don’t have anything right now,” he told me. But a couple of months later he called back to say, “We’re starting to do franchising; perhaps your skills are translatable.” Amos invited me to Boston to meet with him and his Continental co-founder and partner Irv Grousbeck. After a final interview with John Rakoske, who headed the company’s New England region, I was offered the job of director of corporate development in New England, doing franchising. I was so new to the cable business at the time that I “negotiated” to start at my Government salary with a six-month review and a cassette player in addition to the standard AM-FM radio in my company-leased Chevy Malibu. I remember Irv Grousbeck telling me, “If that’s what it takes…” When my compensation was re-set, I was treated more than fairly, except for one review, years later, when Amos inadvertently used payroll records from a prior year, proposed “raising” my salary to my then current compensation. After I politely pointed this out, Amos recalculated. As you can see, one thing led to another in my cable career and it wasn’t due to advance planning. And as I look back now, I don’t think I could have scripted it any better. So I feel very, very fortunate.
STODDARD: Robert, you have told me in conversations before today that when you look back on your cable career you really consider the period of time that you were at Continental as the pinnacle of your cable career. Why is that? And talk a little bit about what you felt you achieved on behalf of Continental and its customers over those years.
SACHS: Many people would look at my career and say being the president and CEO of the industry trade organization was probably the pinnacle and I think there’s truth in that too, but having spent nearly two decades at Continental it was the most impactful period.
STODDARD: So setting the timeframe, roughly 1980 —
SACHS: It was ’79 really through the end of ’96 and then MediaOne, and Continental Consulting Group before and after NCTA.
STODDARD: Okay, great. So you enter the Continental universe focusing extensively on franchising at that period?
SACHS: Well, in the early period I also focused on a young woman who was a graphic designer in the advertising department, Caroline Taggart. I’m happy to say we’ve now been married for 41 years.
STODDARD: The pinnacle of your life perhaps.
SACHS: Most definitely, meeting Caroline was the highpoint. As it turned out, she didn’t stay at Continental very long. By the time we got married in 1982, Caroline had left the company for another graphics design position. However, what she really wanted to do was pursue art. Eventually she went back to school, completed a five-year studio program in painting, painted for a number of years, co-owned and managed a commercial gallery, took up ceramics and today is also a very talented potter. She’s the creative one in the family.
STODDARD: So talk a little bit about how your career at Continental developed and what were the major highlights?
SACHS: You know, franchising was really what I did night and day for the first four or five years.
STODDARD: Some people think of it as kind of the wild west era of cable. It was intense —
SACHS: When I started out it was kind of the “wild east” because Continental mostly operated in the eastern half of the U.S., Stockton, California being the exception. Ultimately, the Company had nine operating regions from California to New England, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, and Florida, plus cable system investments in Argentina, Australia and Singapore, but at the time New England was our largest region and that’s where I worked for the first couple of years, seeking to win new franchises. Even though there were six or eight or 10 companies we were competing with, we were successful at least three quarters of the time. Amos would say 85 percent. And then it was negotiating those franchises and following up to be sure we honored our commitments.
My job didn’t end when we signed the franchise document. I’d be back before either the mayor, board of selectmen, city council or cable committee to update them on our construction progress. Eventually I’d handoff this responsibility to someone in the region, often the person who would become the system manager.
And as we exhausted opportunities in and around Boston and in New England, I got involved in a bid that the company was making for one of the sectors of Chicago, area five of Chicago. And I worked with some great people, Bill Clancy, a former New York assemblyman who was heading our franchising in the Midwest, and Bob Ryan who went on to enjoy a long career with Continental and then Comcast. Bill and Bob were phenomenal. We were successful in winning area five. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Borough of Staten Island in New York City. Though urban environments, big urban environments, weren’t really our comfort zone. Local politics were often messy. So Continental eventually sold its interests in both Chicago and New York.
One of the places I spent an enormous amount of time was St. Paul, Minnesota. And again, it was the public broadcasting connection that brought Continental to the Twin Cities. You might wonder, what it was? In addition to being two-time NCTA board chair, Amos had served for six years— as an appointee of President Ford—- on the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). From CPB he knew Bill Kling who had started and headed Minnesota Public Radio. Coincidentally, I knew Bill from my work with Tim Wirth.
After St. Paul had gone through an unsuccessful franchising process and failed effort at municipal ownership the city was going to start anew. And some cable companies, frankly, weren’t going to bother anymore because the Twin Cities were not perceived as a cable-friendly environment. Even Rogers Cablesystems, which served Minneapolis, decided to take a pass. But being freezing in Minnesota half the year, it seemed to us that St. Paul should be at a place where people would be indoors many months of the year and want cable television. Anyway, Bill Kling called Amos and said, “Why don’t you guys come out and take a look ?” And so I was dispatched and after we did more diligence we formed a very unique partnership with MPR. MPR was going to be responsible for local programming and chair our local board and in exchange receive a small percentage of the system’s revenues. MPR also owned an excellent site for the system headend.
It was a highly contentious franchising contest despite there being just three applicants. The three included Teleprompter, the then largest MSO; Continental, then the 9th largest; and a local group calling themselves Nor-west Partners consisting of some local real estate developers and others who had political and union connections. In the end neither experienced company garnered a majority of city council votes because Teleprompter and Continental split them, and then the local partners, with no cable experience, prevailed on the fourth or fifth ballot. So Mayor George Latimer, a strong supporter of Minnesota Public Radio, headquartered in St. Paul, vetoed the council action and after a further public hearing, Continental won.
St. Paul is also where I first met Bill Bresnan. Bill was the CEO of Teleprompter at the time. There’s actually an embarrassing story here. The night before the council vote, Amos and I wanted to get together with Bob Fletcher, a councilman I’d gotten to know pretty well and we wanted to try to have dinner with Bob. It’s usually good to have the last conversation before the officials are voting. Unfortunately, he told me that he and his wife were having dinner with Mr. Bresnan that evening. So I said, “Could we meet you for a drink after?” And he said sure so he and his wife did. Amos and I had had dinner by ourselves and Bob and Linda Fletcher joined us after. He started off our conversation by saying something to the effect of, “You know, I really like you guys. You’re classy guys, but you’re a relatively small company, you’re privately owned, and here Teleprompter is the largest company in your industry so I’m worried you guys aren’t going to be around to fulfill what you’ve told us. I hope there’s no hard feelings.” Amos assured him Continental was in it for the long haul but Fletcher told him he had already committed his vote. Reluctantly we said, “we understand,” and excused ourselves.
As I mentioned , Continental eventually won the franchise. A year or so later I’m visiting with Councilman Fletcher and he says, “There’s one thing I’ve always been troubled by about how that process went down.” I said, “What was that?” He said, “We met you and Hostetter after we had had dinner with Bresnan and I gave you that news.” And I said, “Yeah, I remember.” And he said, “But I didn’t think you guys would ever stick us with your dinner check.” After he told us about his decision we had said something like, “Thank you for your time… we’ll leave you two now and see you at council chambers tomorrow.” However, we apparently forgot to pay for our dinner. Councilman Fletcher was gracious and paid for it, but rule number one when you’re franchising, don’t ever stiff the councilman with your dinner tab.
Anyway, that was St. Paul. Except, litigation followed our franchise award. The Nor-west developers suddenly discovered cable was a First Amendment medium and represented by cable attorney Harold Farrow, who argued that the city should have awarded them a second franchise on First Amendment grounds. The city was ably represented by litigators Ernest Reveal and Kathleen Marron of the Robins Kaplan firm. Continental intervened on the city’s behalf, represented by Hogan & Hartson partners Jay Ricks and Gardiner Gillespie, and a young associate, John Roberts, whom Jay described as the law firm’s Constitutional expert, and today carries the title “Chief Justice of the United States.” Nor-west’s attempt to establish a First Amendment right to obtain a cable franchise failed. And after the grueling St. Paul process, domestic franchising for us effectively came to an end.
STODDARD: It ran out because most of the franchises —
SACHS: Had been awarded. So my job changed. The ’84 Cable Act had passed. Continental was more involved in Washington. I took on federal government relations responsibilities from Boston and corporate public affairs became one of my areas of responsibility as well. The latter generated initiatives like Cable in the Classroom, and Annual Teacher Awards, led by Community Relations VP Nancy Larkin. Eventually we did open a Washington office but that wasn’t until the mid-1990s. We were pretty much tapped out in terms of what we could do investment wise domestically, except for stock transactions, and weren’t in a position to be doing cash acquisitions because they had grown too expensive.
Several international markets, with more attractive economics, were just opening up. In the late 1980’s, Rob Stengel was approached by Jack Crosby, a U.S. cable pioneer, about a joint venture opportunity he had identified in Buenos Aires. Rob investigated and it seemed promising so we got more involved and I ended up along with Pat Miehe, a lawyer from Sullivan and Worcester, going to negotiate a joint venture in Buenos Aires which included 500,000 or 600,000 cable customers in Argentina owned by CableVision, a leading Argentine cable provider. It was a great experience. I think we were able to buy-in for $500 or $600 a sub compared to the U.S. where cable systems were selling for as much as $1,800 or $2,000 a sub at the time.
The opportunity seemed compelling and we had a great local partner in Samuel Lieberman, an entrepreneur who was also the largest exporter of flowers from Colombia and held the Seiko watch distributorship in Latin America. Because ours was the first U.S. investment in Argentina since the U.S. and Argentina entered into a bilateral trade agreement, we retained former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to ensure a smooth regulatory approval process.
Another cable industry veteran from Kansas City, a guy named Bob Weary, had been on holiday in Singapore. Bob owned a few smaller systems in Kansas. He knew Amos and he thought highly of him so he called him and said, “I’ve just been in Singapore and I think there’s an opportunity there and if I can participate, I’d like to, but that’s not essential.” So we went over and he had lined up a lawyer, an ex-pat British lawyer. As we got involved in Singapore it felt much like local franchising but on a country level. And as we found, you don’t really want to start out with an ex-pat attorney. Moreover, The Government of Singapore, which had just had a very high-profile dispute with the Wall Street Journal, with Dow Jones, was unlikely to award its cable franchise to a foreign company. There was very tight control of media, in Singapore. But we thought maybe there’s still an investment opportunity in this then unwired city-state of 4 million people. So, Amos and I go over to Singapore. When I say go over to Singapore, it’s flying to the other side of the world, and it was at that time about a 28-hour trip from Boston, 21 in the air.
And after a day or two of meetings Amos didn’t feel there was much opportunity. I said, “Let me stay a few days” and I did. Just after Amos departed I received a call from Anthony Chia of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation whom we had met with the previous day. “Can we get together for a drink?” he asked. One thing led to another and we developed good relationships with Singapore Broadcasting as well as Singapore Telecommunications — Singtel. In our view they were the two logical local companies to build Singapore’s cable system, so we kept talking to both companies.
This courtship would continue for almost two years. — and then one night I got a call from a Singaporean friend – whom I had gotten to know while going to an executive education program at Harvard Business School. We’d always have dinner when I’d visit Singapore. He said a friend of his at another Singapore company, Singapore Technologies, told him her company was also interested in cable. I said, “I don’t know anything about Singapore Technologies, tell me more.” He said, “It would be better if you could come to Singapore.” I was in Buenos Aires at the time, so flew back to Boston, took the next flight out to Singapore, and had lunch with him and his friend, a very impressive woman with a master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford University named Ho Ching. Ho Ching was also the daughter-in-law of Lee Kuan Yew, the then prime minster and founding father of modern-day Singapore. Yes, Ho Ching had “pretty good” connections. So we started a conversation. She flew to Boston the next week with her general counsel, Lee Theng Kiat. On a snowy night in January Amos and I dined with them.
After a long dinner conversation, we shook hands on “let’s do something together” and after another meeting in Singapore, put together a venture which would include Singapore Technologies, Continental Cablevision, and Singapore Press Holdings which owned the newspapers and magazines in Singapore. Together we established Singapore CableVision (SCV), to be managed by Continental for the first few years, to bring cable TV and broadband Internet services to Singapore. The companies and people we worked with were great partners on both a professional and personal level.
Unfortunately, after US WEST acquired Continental, it divested Continental’s international ownership positions. Again, US WEST sacrificed valuable relationships. Singapore CableVision eventually merged in the early 2000’s with StarHub, an emerging wireless company. As I was leaving NCTA, I was invited to serve on the StarHub board and did so until 2018, traveling to Singapore several times a year. For me Singapore was a truly wonderful cross-cultural experience. While it originated with Continental, I’m happy to say my Singapore involvement continued for more than two decades beyond the sale of Continental.
STODDARD: Also, during the mid-90’s Continental entered the buildup to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
STODDARD: And my sense of it, being a friend and colleague of yours during that era, was that you were one of the leaders in the enactment of the Telecom Act of ’96 and that Continental played a large role in that. Is that an accurate description?
SACHS: Not really. By this time, we had established a small Washington office which was headed by Brenda Fox, former NCTA general counsel, and Lorine Card who had come out of Continental. So Brenda and Lorine were much more involved than I was. As you know, the ’96 Act was important because industry stocks were down probably 50% since the ’92 Cable Act, due primarily to rate regulation. Without legislation to lift that yoke cable operators wouldn’t be able to raise the billions of dollars needed to upgrade their networks to offer advanced services. Ironically we had solved our own rate regulation problem in 1995 by negotiating the industry’s first social contract with the FCC, with the Reed Hundt FCC. But even though we had settled all our rate cases, it didn’t free up capital for the company. And we were highly leveraged, eight or nine times. Amos always assured us, “Don’t worry, we’re solvent.” However, we couldn’t borrow any more. It was in that 1995-96 period the company considered whether or not to do a public offering — but the markets were terrible and we wouldn’t be able to raise what we needed to raise. It was around this time that US WEST approached Continental. Faced with this hard reality, Amos and the senior team came to the decision that if we can’t raise the capital to do what we need to do, then maybe it’s the time to exit at a premium price after having a great 33-year run as an independent, privately owned company. As I recall, the deal price reflected the highest multiple for any large cable acquisition.
STODDARD: It was $11 billion, does that sound correct?
SACHS: Yeah. In today’s world of mega-mergers, this doesn’t seem huge, but for the time it was the cable high-water mark, around 12x EBIDTA, reflecting the shareholder value Continental had created. I know I’ve taken us on a few tangents here —
STODDARD: You addressed the significance of the Telecommunications Act and —
SACHS: What I was going to say was from Continental’s standpoint, with the US WEST deal afoot, the 1996 Act became less significant to us than it was to most other companies in the industry because we had already embarked on a course of selling, so — our needs were different.
STODDARD: You know, I’d love to spend hours more talking about this. Our time is starting to expire, but I don’t want to leave out the last four or five years prior to this conversation. You retired around 2018. How would you describe the interim between 2018 and today’s conversation? What have you been up to? Where have you turned your attention?
SACHS: I mentioned earlier that I’m a 37-year cancer survivor, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’m also now an eight-year prostate cancer survivor. In 2015 I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. As you can appreciate, I’m not the retiring type and for years I resisted even mention of the word “retirement,” but following prostate surgery, radiation, and other treatment, by 2018 I felt I needed to step back.
I retired from the StarHub board in Singapore that year. I had also served on several other company boards, but prior to 2018 those companies had been acquired. One whose name you probably know was Global Crossing, Ltd. After they emerged from bankruptcy in 2004, I had joined their board. Eventually we sold the company to Level 3. In 2018, I also phased out my consulting activities. My priority was to continue my not-for-profit activities, and I did.
After NCTA, Caroline and built a second home on Cape Cod and so in recent years have spent our summers there. Similarly, we’ve been going back and forth to the Caribbean for over 30 years and now live several months a year in Anguilla in the British West Indies where we’ve made some wonderful friendships. Boston is still our permanent home, and have good friends there too, but these days we’re away more than half the year. So in spite of the serious health challenges I’ve faced, to be 74, and have had the life experiences I’ve had, I feel very blessed.
My dad worked very hard, and dying at age 49 never got to really realize the fruits of his labors. It was all for my mother and my brother and me for who he was trying to create a good future. We lived in a 1,400 sq. ft. ranch house that my parents bought in 1951 for $19,900. So, I really feel very fortunate to be here today, to enjoy the fruits of my labors, and give back to society however I can.
A more recent undertaking of mine involves Xtandi, a cancer drug that I needed to take a few years ago. At the time it was priced at $160,000 a year. ( It’s now $200,000 a year.) The exorbitant price had nothing to do with the cost of developing or manufacturing the drug.
In fact, the drug was discovered by two UCLA researchers funded by NIH and DoD with taxpayer dollars. And so I identified Knowledge Ecology International, a not-for-profit organization in Washington that’s very active in this area to work with. Along with two other prostate cancer survivors, in November 2021 I filed a petition with the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Health to try to get the government to exercise the patent rights it retains to bring down the excessive and discriminatory cost for American consumers. It’s sold for 3-6 times less in other developed countries. So I’ve spent a good amount of time on this uphill fight. I’m lucky to have Medicare, and private health insurance and could afford the $10,000 year co-pay. The Xtandi petition is really about people who aren’t so fortunate. And, while it is clearly an uphill battle, and not solely about this drug, its one that needs to be waged.
STODDARD: And once again you seem to have merged the experiences of a lifetime for that particular endeavor. It’s fascinating to me how you bring in so many different threads of your life to create this quilt.
SACHS: Well, I think we’re each the sum of our life experiences and for me there are some common threads running through them. There was a time when people would stay in the same job for 30 or 40 years, their whole working life. That era is over and I think more and more people are also going to have diverse careers in the future.
STODDARD: It’s been an enlightening conversation. What have we left out? Is there anything else that you’d care to put on the record for this oral history or anything we might have overlooked?
SACHS: We have covered a lot, Rob, and thank you so much for facilitating this and letting me share my story. The one thing I’d add, as we sit here in 2023— you and I chatted briefly about this yesterday—the cable business today is very, very different, to say the least, from the business I initially encountered in 1975 as a young congressional staffer. Indeed, from my vantage point, the industry is at an existential moment. Currently, there is a high-profile dispute taking place between Charter Communications and Disney, the owner of ESPN. It has to do with the pricing of ESPN and whether the model of a cable bundle is viable going forward. It’s hard to know where they’re going to end up, but I don’t think the day is far off that the cable bundle is a relic of the past. Cable — even the term “cable operator”— will be one that most younger people don’t recognize. “Cable operators” today are broadband companies with video just another app, offering their customers a wide array of digital video, high speed internet, mobile, and home security services. And one can only imagine what the future holds. It’s still a dynamic business but wouldn’t be recognized by somebody whose only experience was in the 20th Century.
STODDARD: Whatever the future holds I hope we can still bring your talents to the table to be the sage that you are and provide the advice that you —
SACHS: Well, I’m always happy to kibbitz.
STODDARD: I appreciate that. Well, Robert, it’s been a fascinating and wonderful conversation today. I think at this moment we’d like to say on behalf of everyone at the Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center thank you for viewing this conversation with Robert Sachs as part of the Hauser Oral History Project, and don’t forget you can view more oral histories at syndeoinstitute.org. Robert, thank you again for your friendship, your mentorship, and the time that you’ve spent with us today.
SACHS: You’re most welcome. And if I can reciprocate, let me direct my thanks to the Cable Center and to Gus Hauser who I knew in my cable days as an innovator, entrepreneur, class act, and later as a philanthropist. Gus’s vision of creating this oral history project is a wonderful gift to the cable industry because it captures an exciting time for the men and women who were lucky enough to be part of this experience.
STODDARD: And we’ll hope that our conversation today lives up to the vision that Gus had when he established this project.
SACHS: I had a chance to view the oral histories of several of my NCTA president predecessors and learned a good deal about them and their experiences. So I hope my history lives up to Gus’s vision too.
STODDARD: As I’m sure our viewers have learned a lot today. So thank you again for joining us and good day.