Business Columns & Blogs

Is Tacoma’s Click still viable in the changing landscape of TV viewership?

Tacoma officials seek public input on plans for the Click network.
Tacoma officials seek public input on plans for the Click network. The News Tribune

Let’s see — this remote control is for the TV itself. This greyish one is for the combo DVD/VCR player. That silvery metal thing is the remote for Apple TV. And that new addition to the growing pile is for the Roku.

If you can remember which button performs which function on which device (“to get subtitles, I press this unlabeled button for two seconds, right?”), if you can remember what device is linked to the channel or source of what you wanted, then congratulations! You get to watch some TV!

That sort of scenario, played out in millions of homes across this fair land, helps explain at the macro level why the video entertainment industry is in such turmoil, and why, at the semi-micro level, we’re still wrangling with the fate of Click’s cable-TV operations.

Tacoma Public Utilities’ board voted this past week to negotiate with Rainier Connect to essentially take over operation of the cable-TV side of the business; it’s already a provider of internet services through the Click network. The city would retain ownership of the network.

The resolution goes to City Council for a vote March 26, providing one more opportunity, and probably not the last, to argue over the idea of a municipally owned cable TV and internet operation.

Opponents to a sale or lease agreement contend prices will go up and that financially Click would make it if it weren’t overloaded with unrelated overhead. Proponents say Click is caught in the squeeze between higher programming costs and changing viewer habits that are reducing demand for cable TV services and that its survival as a municipal operation depends on subsidies from other ratepayers.

The shift in viewer behavior is undeniable, at the national and local levels. The research firm Kagan, which tracks the cable/satellite/internet TV market, was out with another report last week detailing the continuing erosion of viewership. Cable, direct broadcast satellite and telecom multichannel services lost a total of 4 million customers in 2018. Satellite services are really taking the hit, accounting for more than half that loss.

Some — but not all — of the hit is being taken up by subscription services such as Hulu. To understand how that works, let’s return to that pile of remotes, which happens to be located in this columnist’s abode.

The reason for all those devices, and their remote controls, is that we consume video through multiple sources. We don’t have cable or satellite; it’s too expensive for the little time we’d watch it. Outside of college football, we watch no broadcast TV. But we’re hardly lacking for content if we want it. The Apple TV, for example, is used mainly to watch Netflix streaming. The Roku was added because the generation of Apple TV we have didn’t allow the downloading of the apps for Hoopla and Kanopy, two streaming services with a wealth of titles available through local library systems.

A lot of video consumption is occurring not on a traditional TV screen but through a computer, smart phone or some sort of handheld device. It’s not just where we watch it but how we watch programming that’s changing, too.

The Oscars? Who wants to sit through three hours plus of that?

In the unlikely event something interesting actually happens — like giving the Best Picture award to the wrong movie — you can catch the highlight on YouTube the following day. Sports fans can go to YouTube and watch football games stripped of commercials, between-play chitchat and the endless delays as the refs decide whether to reverse a call.

Viewers of a series like “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Sopranos” can sift through near-endless compilations of clips and highlights without ever watching an episode start to finish.

Everyone has his or her personal lists of video podcasts and shows that are every much “appointment viewing” as a show on one of the Big Three networks used to be 40 years ago.

Those sorts of shifts have been bad news for conventional cable and satellite services. They’re good news for internet service providers, especially if they can get customers to pay up for the bandwidth needed to stream an entire movie without hiccups.

Change isn’t going to stop; now it’s affecting the first and second waves of change agents. Those who switched from Netflix DVDs by mail to Netflix streaming are finding the latter to be adequate for binge-watching certain TV series but woefully thin when it comes to new and older movies. They might dump the company altogether. YouTube already offers a pay streaming service, and some of the holders of content now offered for free might decide it’s time to monetize it.

Those various services may cannibalize customers from one another even as the size of the video-content universe continues to contract. The amount of time available in the day hasn’t increased even if the opportunities to use it has. What with demands from leisure activities like social media and video games, not to mention real-world intrusions including family, work, school and the commute, it’s not shock that viewership through conventional delivery channels and systems would decline.

The challenge for owners and operators of conventional systems like Tacoma is figuring out a business model that works within the confines of those changes or hiring someone who thinks they have. It’s either that or tell its citizenry, “Don’t go do something! Just sit there and watch more TV!”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at
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