What You’ll Learn

Their customers were New Hope Telephone’s number one concern when NHTC made the decision to drop TV service. Marketing Manager Christy Barecky discusses how the cooperative helped their customers make the transition to finding a new service that was right for them.

Guest Speaker

Christy Barecky

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What is it like to go through the process of dropping TV service? That’s what we’re going to be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth and Pioneer. And I’m joined today by Christy Barecky, who is the marketing manager at New Hope Telephone Cooperative in North Alabama. Thanks for joining me, Christy.

Christy Barecky: Thanks for having me.

Andy Johns: So it’s wild that we haven’t had an episode with you on here before, so I’m glad that you were able to join us for this one. And the idea for this came up with a conversation that we had back in December where you guys really went above and beyond. I know there are a lot of folks out there that have talked about getting out of the TV business. But when you guys were talking through the process that you went through, that was really kind of above and beyond. And I wanted to be sure that we cover that, and we shared that with everybody. So I guess let’s just start off at the beginning and tell us a little bit about NHTC, just some of the basics.

Christy Barecky: So like you said, we’re located in North Alabama. We’re in Madison County. We’re just south of Huntsville, which currently is booming. There’s a lot of growth in the area. We have about 5,000 customers currently, but we have a lot of organic growth going on in the area due to Huntsville growing so much. We actually started offering TV service back, I guess probably in the late 80s or early 90s, and it’s just like with telephone service, our customers here couldn’t get anybody to come to the area with TV service. There were some areas that could get like satellite, [but] for the most part, they couldn’t get service. So we did decide to bring service to the area. And of course, we started out with just a handful of channels, and we grew from there. We are 100% fiber to the premise. We actually have been 100% fiber to the premise for just a little over five years now. So that was a long project, getting everybody switched over to fiber. And we were super excited whenever we were at 100%.

Andy Johns: And that’s a big detail. If you hadn’t brought that up, I was going to make sure to bring that up because I think that’s a big part of what enabled you to do everything else that we’re going to talk about is to have that fiber network in place. So for a lot of years out there, folks have said, the folks who provide TV — either by cable or an IPTV solution — it’s more of a kind of a loss leader. Nobody’s really making any [money]. In fact, a lot of folks are losing money on TV. But you guys had done, where a lot of folks would like to drop TV, you guys had done some surveying and looked into it to see just how viable it was to pull the plug and move away from it completely. Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of the fact finding and what kind of thought went into it before you made the decision?

Christy Barecky: Sure. So initially, our first thought was never to get rid of TV service. Oddly enough, when we first sent out these surveys, it was more of — you know, content costs were going up every year. You had your local retransmission agreements and initially they were must-carry, which meant they couldn’t charge for their programing. Well, then they switched over to the local retransmission model. And we actually were telling our customers from the beginning when we started talking about dropping TV service, that our local retransmission channels alone had increased by more than 791% from 2013 to early 2021.

Andy Johns: Wow.

Christy Barecky: Yeah. So when we first started looking at TV service, we were looking at other alternatives we could offer our customers. We looked at channels, what channels were popular for our customers. We actually sent out an in-depth survey and we had asked for feedback on each channel that we offer in our package. As far as you know, I watch this channel all the time or rarely or never and just kind of got feedback so that whenever it came time to renegotiate contracts, if that was a channel that majority of our customers were not even interested in, then we would just drop it.

Andy Johns: Smart.

Christy Barecky: But unfortunately, what we realized is that was going to take a while and that really wasn’t helping us anyway. I think we ended up only dropping Stingray Music Channels before we started going a different direction. So we’re looking at over the top and streaming was becoming popular. So we were looking at an alternative for our current TV subscribers, where we would have an over the top streaming solution as well as they can keep that traditional feel. But we realized when looking into that it actually was going to end up costing us even more money to go that route than just having our traditional IPTV service.

Andy Johns: Interesting.

Christy Barecky: So we decided then that that was not an option for us either. So that was when we started looking at potentially getting rid of TV service altogether. And so we just kind of started reaching out to other cooperatives that we knew were either in the process of doing it, had already done it, or maybe we’re talking about doing it, just to try to get some feedback from them.

Andy Johns: Sure. And then what does that decision look like internally? Is that something that had to go to the board, or that you all were just able to decide there among the managers? Or how far and how long does that decision take to be made to make a big change like that?

Christy Barecky: So initially it was just a discussion among the management team just to kind of get a feedback from everybody. And of course, we got a resounding yes, let’s do this. Let’s move forward with getting rid of TV service. So at that point, once we had all of management on board, then our general manager, Daniel Martin, he took the presentation to our board of directors.

Andy Johns: Got it. So then once the decision is made, that’s the kind of the sweet spot for you and I and most of the folks listening. That’s when it gets into communicating about it. So let’s talk through that, and let’s spend some time here. The decision is made to drop TV and, you know, there’s going to be a certain percentage of folks out there that any kind of change to anything is going to upset some folks. So I know that that was on your mind. Let’s talk about how you went about communicating this change to the folks you serve.

Christy Barecky: So in early March of 2021, that is when we actually started getting this message out to our customers. So at this point, we had our management team on board. Our board of directors are on board. We had already gotten our ducks in a row as far as information we were going to share with our customers. So we were comfortable at the beginning of March, with releasing that messaging. And our sunset date for TV service, where we were going to kill the headend and TV service would be no more, was at midnight on July 1st.

Andy Johns: Got it. So you were looking at, what’s that, about four or five?

Christy Barecky: Roughly four months.

Andy Johns: About four months. Yeah. Okay. So that’s a lot to do in a pretty short window. I don’t know that I realized the window was that short. Okay, so you make that decision and then you’ve got that deadline. Where do you go next? How do you start letting folks know?

Christy Barecky: So when we were looking into other alternatives for TV service, we actually had looked into Dish Network, and they offer an agreement where you can partner with them. And then when you sell Dish Network to a customer, you actually get a revenue from that.

Andy Johns: An affiliate program or something.

Christy Barecky: Yes an affiliate program. So what we wanted our customers to have an option that was similar to what we offer because so many of these customers are older demographic, because a lot of the younger demographic had already took to some kind of streaming option over the Internet. So we knew that our customers wanted something that was similar to what they were used to. So we did decide to partner with Dish, and Dish was great to work with. They actually helped us with our first letter that we sent out to our customers, and we sent it to all the TV customers in early March. And it was just some information about why we were getting rid of the TV service, let them know that we were partnering with Dish, and why that was a good option for our customers. We also sent them a list of frequently asked questions. Just kind of give them an idea of what do they do with their set top box when we don’t have the service anymore. Are we still going to offer their Internet service? Which of course, that’s a big yes. Just some questions that we felt the customers might have that we could answer right off the bat for them.

Andy Johns: And what was that response like? What kind of feedback did you get? And was it as big of a deal for some folks as you thought it might be? What was the response like?

Christy Barecky: It was a big deal for some, only because our TV service was all they were familiar with. We had kind of a growing pain back when we went from Coax TV service to IPTV where they had to learn the set top box. And, you know, we didn’t realize that we would have those customers who would be afraid of the change. But honestly, I feel like the way that we went about preparing ourselves and preparing our customers and we were able to answer their questions and our main message to our customers was, we are here for you during this transition. We want to help you find whatever option works best for you and your family. We’re not going to just say “We’re not offering TV service anymore. Good luck finding something else.” We just made sure we drilled the message home to our customers that we were there for them, and it really wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be.

Andy Johns: Okay, that’s good. It’s always good when it’s not as bad as you’re prepared for. It sounds like y’all did quite a few things along the way to make it better. Now, one of the things that you guys did that I’ve not heard of anybody else doing, and maybe it helps that you guys are close to Huntsville. And so the over the air options are better than it would be for some folks, a long way from a metro area. But you guys actually helped with antennas so that folks could get the broadcast over the air, which isn’t something that I’d heard of anybody else doing, but it is something that just drives home — like you were saying — the fact that you guys are there for them.

Christy Barecky: Yeah. So in thinking of our customers again, going back to most of these TV customers are of the older demographic. We had quite a bit who were on our Lifeline TV package, which basically is only your local channels. So and like you said, us being close to Huntsville, luckily we can get good signal here for over the air antennas. So we decided that we would have the option for customers to be able to get an antenna through us. And we actually purchased antennas from Amazon. We sold them at cost. We did not mark them up, but we did charge an installation fee. We had a set amount for up to four TVs and then anything beyond that, we would have to send a technician out to get a quote for those that would need more than four TVs.

Andy Johns: And I’m sure that folks were just I mean, like I said, you’re not getting that from other providers. I mean, that really speaks to the cooperative mission you guys have and a commitment to the community. So that’s the detail I wanted to be sure that we discussed, because I think that was great. Now, so beyond the satellite, were there any other — because there are so many different streaming services out there now. There are different platforms like with the fire stick and the Roku and all of the different items. Were you guys pretty, pretty neutral on whether they signed up for YouTubeTV or Hulu or Netflix or whatever they are? If they weren’t signing up for anything, were you guys pretty platform neutral there, or did you make some pretty strong recommendations on on what folks ought to do?

Christy Barecky: So we were very neutral even though we had partnered with Dish. We made sure that Dish understood from the beginning that we would not be — I hate to put it this way — but shoving that down their throats. We just wanted as many options for our customers as possible so that we could hopefully find something that would work well for them. What we ended up doing is we had a very in-depth TV tab on our website, and I can credit other cooperatives. I had looked around and done some research, talked to some other companies and got ideas from them and just kind of took what worked for them and then added what I felt would work for us. So on this TV tab on our website, we had information about Dish. We also partnered with Sling so that there was an over the top option there, but we had information for so many different streaming services. If they were looking for something that was like a traditional TV service, we gave them information on YouTubeTV, Hulu+ live TV, Fubo TV, Philo. And there was information as far as how many channels they have, the cost per month, things like that. Kind of in an almost similar to a spreadsheet. But they could the customer could click through and see all this information. We actually even I took our channel line up at that time that showed every channel that we offer. And I made like a spreadsheet and showed if their favorite channel was ESPN, it would show what platforms they could get ESPN on to try to help them decide which one of these options is going to work best for the channels that I enjoy watching. And that information is still on our website. Now, the the channel guide may be a little outdated because we haven’t touched it since we made this transition. But if anybody’s interested in looking, we do still have that information on our website.

Andy Johns: Well, I have heard that college football is a fairly big deal for people to want to watch. So I’m pretty sure that was that was probably a driver for a lot of folks, ESPN and some of those, like you said. There in Alabama, there’s been — I’m not even going to say anything being a Georgia boy about what happened or anything else — but I know those live sports are a driver for for everybody on stuff like that.

Christy Barecky: Yes.

Andy Johns: So when you said that the reaction wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be, but then you go through all these steps, and I’m hoping that folks were appreciative. Do you think that along the way, taking those extra steps, making that chart, having the antenna options, you think maybe you made some fans or after you guys were working through those with folks and really being, like I said, going above and beyond to be helpful. Do you think you won some fans along the way there, or what is the response from folks once they see what all y’all are doing to make the transition a good one?

Christy Barecky: Oh, definitely. We had customers that were thanking us for the help. And I forgot to point out, we had a showroom set up in our lobby. And of course, this is happening during a pandemic. However, things luckily were very quiet during that time, so our lobby was open. We were able to have customers. So we have a TV in our lobby. We had Dish set up on it. We had an Amazon fire stick, Roku box, and then we had different streaming services. And we invited our customers, the ones who were not sure which route to take. We’re like, “Hey, just stop by our office. We’ll be glad to show you. You can test this out in person and see what you like better, what works for you.” We also invited them if they purchased, say they purchased a Fire Stick. We invited them to bring that Fire Stick to our office, and we would set it up for them. We would add whatever over-the-top streaming options they wanted. And that way, basically, they just took it home, plugged it in and watched whatever they wanted to. And again, that goes back to us being small. We were blessed that we were able to get that in-depth with our customers and help them. And I just feel like that helped us out tremendously.

Andy Johns: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s all that anybody could ask for. That’s more, that’s really more than folks could ask for. I don’t know how many of those you did yourself if you did a lot of the demos or showing them, but either from doing those or from what you’ve heard from the folks who did, what were some of the biggest things folks had to overcome? Is it just it looks different than flipping channels like they had been for 40 or 50 years, or what were some of the the things that make people hesitant or challenges for folks in making that switch?

Christy Barecky: So I did not help customers. Our customer service team was extraordinary, and they helped them. But I did overhear in the lobby our customer service reps helping. And I will say probably the biggest challenge is, like you said, it looks different. So it’s not just like they pick up their remote, and they start flipping through channels. They would have to get used to that app or whatever option they select. So it is a little different than what they’re used to. But once they came in and we were able to kind of demo for them, that did make them feel a lot better. And we still had some of them were like, “I miss my guide,” you know.

Christy Barecky: But, they worked through it. And I will say, as far as popularity, I think from what we know. Now, we did have a lot of customers that we have no idea what they went with. But YouTubeTV was very popular.

Andy Johns: Okay. Got it. That’s one, going back to the live sports, they usually do pretty well there. When I was looking at what we talked about earlier, so July 1st rolls around and you guys still had a few hundred that, like you said, rode it out till the very end. So did you hear from any of those folks once? I mean, I guess what happened, the TV just just went dark midnight on July 1st? Did you hear from any of those folks?

Christy Barecky: Yeah, so it did. It went dark at midnight on July 1st. And there were close to 800 people who stayed on TV service. And if you look at it, when we started on at the beginning of March, we had about 1700 TV subscribers. So they slowly started dwindling down each month. And then we just had those that wrote it out until the bitter end. And we had less than 20 calls that next business day. So I think those people, they already had something lined up, and they just decided to keep us until the very end. We had, luckily, I was afraid we would have so many people say, “What happened to my TV?” Like, We’ve tried so hard to get this message out to you, and you’ve missed it. But like I said, we had maybe 20 calls and they were all, “Can you help me decide what to sign up for?”

Andy Johns: Excellent. Well, that makes me feel good that at least most of the folks got the message. And I know that can be that can be frustrating when you feel like you’ve communicated. it over and over and over again. So it sounds like that’s a success story for sure. Well, the last question I had for you. Let’s get your advice, or let’s get your thoughts about what would you tell somebody who is one of the many telcos out there that I talked to that is thinking, man, “We’re losing money on TV, and everybody’s doing streaming.” What advice would you have for somebody who’s in that boat and thinking about about pulling the plug on on TV service?

Christy Barecky: Sure. So honestly, I really wish we would have done it sooner. I would definitely recommend prepare yourself as much as you can so that you can prepare your customer. You know, going back to the antennas. You may want to consider not promoting that option. We did promote that. We had it on that TV tab that I had told you about earlier where customers could see, “Hey, we can get an antenna from them, and they’ll install it.” Our technicians were not happy about that because it did take a pretty good bit of time to get those installs done. So we did end up choosing a cut off date where we remove that information from the website at a point that we felt like we probably had most of those who were going to get the antenna sign up. But if we had somebody call and say, “Hey, I had saw or heard that you would install an antenna, could I go ahead and sign up for one?” We would go ahead and do it. So that’s something I would say I would kind of caution. It was a great option, and I’m so glad we did it because like I said, we had a lot of older customers, but it was very time consuming for our technicians. Like I said, just kind of consider whether or not you would want to promote that and just let your customers know that you’re there for them and try to help them find something that works for them.

Andy Johns: Well, it certainly sounds like you guys went above and beyond in doing that. So I appreciate you sharing all those insights for us. Thanks for the advice for folks who were in those shoes, because I know there are quite a few out there trying to make that decision. And it’s kind of a tough one, but it sounds like it was the right one for you all. So, Christy, thanks for joining me.

Christy Barecky: Thanks, Andy.

Andy Johns: She is Christy Barecky, the marketing manager at New Hope Telephone Cooperative in Alabama. I’m your host, Andy Jones, with WordSouth and Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.