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Member Profile: Click! Network (Tacoma, WA)

Click! Network competes against industry giants: Comcast Corp. and Qwest Communications on the ground and Dish Network and DirecTV in the sky, making the independent cable operator's hometown of Tacoma, Wash., one of the most competitive in the nation.

The fruits of all that intense competitive pressure are evident every month when customers receive their bills in the mail.

"If you're a cable TV customer or an Internet customer of any company in our footprint, you pay between 35% and 49% less than if you are not in our footprint," said Diane R. Lachel, Click! Network's Government and Community Relations Manager. "That's really significant. That's what the Telecom Act of 1996 was all about. That's the kind of competition Congress intended."

Owned by the city of Tacoma, Click! Network launched its first business line, cable TV, in 1998. The municipally owned network was originally designed to support just the city's electric power utility -- by connecting substations, major utility buildings and enabling two-way smart meters, not by connecting homes to a competitive multichannel video service.

After the Telecom Act was passed, the utility's leaders decided to expand the network's mission, which was in draft form, to include cable TV, broadband and telecommunications services.

Although Click! Cable TV provides cable TV service, the city has contracts with three regional Internet Service Providers to offer residential broadband service and deals with a half dozen telecommunications providers to furnish enterprise customers with voice and broadband services.

"Because of our business model, we don't really bundle. We have only one retail product: cable TV," Lachel noted. "Our other services include wholesale Internet services, high-speed data transport, and telecommunication services for the utility and City."
About 25,000 households subscribe to Click! Cable TV, while 18,000 have broadband access via one of Click!'s partner ISPs. The network employs 110 workers.

How does Click! Cable TV keep its business thriving? Like so many other small, independent cable operators, Click! listens carefully to the customer and develops marketing and outreach strategies that forge a unique bond between the company and the community.

Lachel explained that because multichannel video service from different providers can look an awful lot alike, clever marketing to highlight actual product differentiation has enabled Click! to create and sustain its brand.

To build Click! Cable TV's brand awareness, the company relies on Marketing and Business Operations Manager Mitch Robinson.

Robinson, who joined the company in 2006 from Expedia.com, knows how to build team unity
inside the company: Earlier this year, Robinson delivered on his three-year-old promise to show up at the office with his hair dyed purple, if sales milestones were met. Purple is the eye-catching shade that covers Click!'s fleet of vans and trucks.

"He is extremely innovative," Lachel said with a chuckle. "He continues to amaze us and befuddle us all at the same time."

In June, cable trade journal CableFAX named Robinson Independent Marketer of the Year, an award he will receive at a formal ceremony in October.

System General Manager, Cyndi Wikstrom, is proud of Robinson's work. She's been at Click! since the beginning. After she helped design multiple business lines, set up systems to ensure commercial success within a municipal corporation and coordinated the branding of Click! Network, she was promoted to GM, handing her old duties off to Robinson.

"He never stops thinking of creative ways to differentiate our products and services," said Wikstrom.

One Robinson innovation was the localization of video-on-demand (VOD). The inspiration for this product was the lack of Tacoma community news from the TV stations based in Seattle, about 30 miles northeast of Click!'s headquarters. Tacoma tends to make the local TV news mostly when the news is bad.

In response, Click! decided to build relationships with a multitude of local nonprofits to create a steady inventory of VOD segments exclusively available to Click! viewers.

One VOD service, called Safe Streets, shows how to energize a neighborhood by curbing gang activity, setting up block watches, cleaning up derelict properties, and scrubbing away unsightly graffiti.

Click! also has exclusive VOD rights with The Grand Cinema, a local independent movie theater that also sponsors local film festivals. Through the Click! partnership, local film makers expand their viewing audience to customers hungry for local content.

"We just continue to add hours and hours of that type of exclusive content," Lachel said.

Another Robinson innovation is quarterly Cable 101 workshops, where Click! Cable TV takes the lead in improving the technological literacy of its customers.

These tech tutorials, offered in the afternoon and evening to accommodate various personal schedules, always fill Tacoma Power's 234-seat public auditorium without fail. Topics covered include: How to use your remote control; how to use VOD; the ABCs of HD; children's programming selections and use of parental controls.

The level of customer interest has been astonishing, Lachel said.

"People really love us, it's almost embarrassing. We're not giving away a TV or anything. We're just giving people good information," she said.

Major industry developments are affecting Click!'s cable business. Although the company raised rates just five times in 13 years, it will raise them twice in 2010 to recover the cost of soaring retransmission consent fees demanded by broadcasters.

"I did those negotiations in 2008 and got considerably more gray hair," Lachel said. "We went from paying zero to paying a lot more than zero."

Comcast's effort to acquire NBC Universal in under review by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. In representing smaller and midsize cable companies, ACA has told the FCC and the DOJ that the Comcast-NBCU transaction will harm consumers and competition without meaningful conditions.

"The merger between these two giants will shift everything. I don't know if we can anticipate all of the impacts. We're certainly watching it and we're very grateful for ACA's efforts on behalf all small and medium-size cable operators," Lachel said.

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