Video Solutions Sunset Summons Fond Memories of NRTC’s Past

Randy Sukow


June 30 marked the official closing of NRTC’s Video Solutions business unit. The video business goes back to NRTC’s birth. In 1987, RuralTV C-band “big-dish” satellite TV service was the first product NRTC launched for its members. Over nearly four decades, NRTC adjusted to the many business and technological changes television program distribution technology experienced.

Renée Harrison, VP (pictured left), and Linda Kocher, manager of Video Solutions, were two of the four Video Solutions employees who attended to the final details in recent months. Both started with NRTC in 1999 and have been first-hand witnesses to the many changes.

At the time Renée and Linda started, the RuralTV business was winding down and DIRECTV service was reaching its peak popularity. Members were offering direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service to more than a million subscribers. Seven years before, NRTC signed a contract with Hughes Communications to contribute funds toward building the first DIRECTV satellite, which later launched in 1994. In return, NRTC members had exclusive rights to sell DIRECTV in rural areas.

“The very first DIRECTV subscriber was a customer of an NRTC member. NRTC and our members really helped get DIRECTV started,” Linda said. Within a few years, rural homes throughout the nation had an affordable menu of video programs equal to or better than any urban cable TV service.

Renée remembers the constantly busy state of activity around the DIRECTV business, which was by far the most popular NRTC offering at the time. “Everybody knew all of the members,” she said. “There was a closeness among staff and members.”

A shifting economic environment led News Corp. to acquire a controlling interest in Hughes and DIRECTV in 2003. The following year, NRTC accepted a News Corp. offer to compensate NRTC members for their exclusive DIRECTV territorial rights. Members continued to offer DIRECTV service for several more years under the terms of a new distribution agreement. In the meantime, NRTC searched for other ways to offer video to rural America.

In 2005, NRTC and NTCA, working in cooperation with SES AMERICOM and DASCOM Systems Group, Inc., formed a partnership to offer Internet protocol television (IPTV) in rural communities. NRTC shifted its video focus from orbital distribution to terrestrial by helping members build head ends to distribute programming from satellite feeds and other sources. It would also begin aggregating video content to lower the cost of video packages to members’ subscribers.

The IPTV concept was new to many NRTC members. “There was a lot of education necessary for the members AND the programmers,” Renée said. When NRTC began approaching programmers about agreements to offer their shows on rural IPTV, they had little understanding of IPTV. Leading program owners who regularly met with the largest media companies in the world, often learned from NRTC how IPTV worked and why their programs would not be at risk from copyright theft if they worked with rural ISPs.

NRTC staff helped programmers standardize forms and processes to help smooth future negotiations. “Our reputation with programmers became very strong,” Linda said. It was something that served NRTC well during future negotiations to renew IPTV rights and later build a streaming offering.

Into the 2020s, as more NRTC members and constructed faster fiber-based broadband networks, the demand for facilities-based video distribution dwindled. But even though NRTC Video Solutions is ending, NRTC is not finished with video. NRTC Managed Solutions has entered into agreements to connect co-op subscribers to TV programming through streaming services.

The MyBundle.TV platform helps viewers navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of streaming and online media. Members also may offer their subscribers other services including DIRECTV for Internet, Roku and Sling TV, for a vast range of additional video options.

As for Renée and Linda, they will take on new challenges at NRTC. Renée will lead up a team that answers member queries and offers customer support. Linda will be working with a new department to ensure accuracy of NRTC invoicing.

The two noted that for the first time in 25 years they will not be working directly together. “For the first time, I won’t have my work wife,” Linda joked.

“But our offices are still right next door,” Renée added.

From the DBS era to IPTV to program aggregation and today’s streaming services, NRTC has been upfront, providing the latest video solutions to rural America since it’s founding in 1986.
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