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Cover Story: Business TV Via Satellite: Making A Difference For End Users

By | November 1, 2002

      By James Careless

      Business TV via satellite (BTVS): these days it is more than just pep talks and press conferences. Increasingly, companies are relying on business TV via satellite not just to inform their employees, but to train them, support them and to hear from them as well.

      Who are these companies? Well, they are as diverse as Advance Auto Parts and the investment firm Edward Jones; Volvo and Bank of America. But despite their diversity, all of these companies agree that BTVS is a useful, cost-effective and dynamic solution for making their businesses run better.

      Training Staff And Grabbing Customer Attention

      According to Advance Auto Parts, the typical do-it-yourself (DIY) customer is a no-nonsense male who’s into cars and sports.

      This is why, when Advance Auto Parts (AAP) decided to launch its own in-store channel for customers, it adopted an ESPN style full of sports, celebrities, cars and music videos. For instance, one 30-minute segment on the Advance Auto Parts Network (AAPN) had an interview with the NBA’s Kareem Adbul Jabbar, a preview of the new Ford Mustang, a CNN story on rising gas prices and a NASCAR segment on brakes. Throw in short ads for Advance Auto Parts and fix-it quizzes, and you have a video package tailored to the interests and attention spans of DIY males.

      The network operates three full-time channels, including two in-store entertainment channels and a channel that provides programming specially designed for new stores. This “Grand Opening” programming welcomes customers and AAP team members to stores that were recently acquired, and helps to quickly build branding for the retailer as a new Advance Auto Parts store. Programming is broadcast to 1.2 meter downlinks mounted and managed by Convergent Media, which also provides satellite scheduling, network operation and ongoing support. All told, AAPN reaches more than 1,900 Advance Auto Parts stores in 38 states, which have a combined traffic of more than 120 million annual customers.

      AAPN was launched in 1999, a year after Advance Auto Parts bought Western Auto and Parts America. “It was imperative that we have some kind of communications network to pull together a retail operation that large,” says AAPN Director Jack Fisher.

      But how to balance a system that serves both customers and AAP’s 34,000 team members? Well, for the first group, Advance Auto Parts installed banks of TV monitors at the checkout counters. Meanwhile, special addressable receivers are used to access the other two channels. This keeps proprietary information from being seen by the wrong people.

      As for content? Corporate materials are often produced at Advance Auto Part’s model store in Roanoke, VA, while RMS Networks produces features purchased from ESPN, CNN/Sports Illustrated and NASCAR. Throw in original features hosted by ESPN field reporter Doug Dunbar, and you can imagine the in-store channels’ program mix. Oh, and do not forget TV commercials from Advance Auto Parts and its suppliers, plus the occasional public service spot. All told, they make up 40 percent of the in-store channel’s two-hour continuous loop.

      Whether corporate or in-store, all three channels are encoded and then uplinked from Roanoke, for digital distribution via satellite. It all happens 13 hours a day, 363 days a year, because AAPN keeps the same hours as Advance Auto Parts stores nationwide.

      Does it work? Definitely. For customers, AAPN gives them something to watch while they wait. This keeps them happier, thus reducing employee stress in the bargain. Meanwhile, AAPN’s training and in-store channels are so effective for staff that one store manager asked the network to stop broadcasting a segment on belt tensioners. The reason? The manager had seen it so often that he had it down cold. However, Fisher adds, the result of this extra knowledge was that this store was now selling a lot more belt tensioners.

      Knowledge Is Power

      “The Knowledge Channel”: it sounds like the latest spinoff from The Discovery Channel. But it isn’t. In reality, The Knowledge Channel is Bank of America’s private BTVS network, one that reaches 900 sites worldwide. Launched in 1998, The Knowledge Channel was the bank’s answer to a recent merger with NationsBank. Thanks to that deal, Bank of America suddenly had more than 143,000 employees to inform, train and inspire. They were scattered across 4,000 locations in 21 states and 37 countries.

      So why choose BTVS? “We saw a lot of other companies doing it,” says Benson Chan, Bank of America’s vice president of training and development, “especially global companies like ourselves. For us, distance learning and satellite communications are good solutions.”

      Then and now, The Knowledge Channel is managed by Convergent Media Systems. In fact, Convergent put The Knowledge Channel together as a turnkey solution, complete with a VIPER (Virtual Interactive Production EnviRonment) automated studio–and a fully-manned TV production studio–at the Bank’s headquarters in Charlotte, NC. Today, The Knowledge Channel’s content is produced by Bank of America’s own people, with distribution and support being provided by Convergent.

      Tune into The Knowledge Channel, and chances are you will not see the flashy content favored by AAPN. That’s okay: Bank of America’s BTVS goal is to inform, rather than entertain. That is why viewers are provided with a range of new product presentations, training courses, and real-time broadcasts by top bank executives. This is business TV that means business: that is to get the message out to employees, and fast.

      “Like a lot of companies, we have gone through up-sizing and down-sizing–a lot of changes,” Chan says. This is where The Knowledge Channel delivers, because it gets the news out to all locations at the same time. “Department heads need to get information out quickly,” Chan comments. “They don’t have time to travel to deliver the message, or even for memos or e-mail. They need real-time.”

      Meanwhile, The Knowledge Channel ends Bank of America’s training headaches, both in terms of coordinating instructor/student schedules and finding classroom space. “We’ve eliminated the problem of trying to reach multiple locations quickly,” says Chan. “All we have to do is schedule the satellite time and viewing times at the facilities. The Knowledge Channel really helps us disseminate information quickly, and it is much more cost-effective.”

      Staying On Top Of Trends

      With more than 9,000 offices scattered across the United States and Canada, keeping its investment representatives up-to-date is a major concern for Edward Jones. That’s why the company–with support from the Enliten Management Group–runs its own BTVS network over Telstar 7.

      “Managing Partner (CEO) John Bachmann in the mid-’80s had a vision of being able to communicate a consistent and timely message to every office,” says Steve Clement, Edward Jones’ network manager. “His philosophy was then and is today, ‘You can’t win with technology, but you can be beaten without it.'”

      This vision led to Edward Jones launching its BTVS network in 1989. It replaced “a videotape distribution system that was too cumbersome, complicated and slow,” Clement notes.

      Today, this network serves all 9,000-plus Edward Jones offices in North America.

      To say the least, Edward Jones’ BTVS schedule is ambitious. “We broadcast approximately 400 programs ranging in length from five to 55 minutes annually,” Clement says. “In addition, we have connected the training facilities in Tempe and St. Louis so that investment representatives, no matter where they are, feel like they’re getting training from the same subject matter experts.”

      So who’s watching, and what’s on? “We use the network for firm communication for both internal audiences and customers,” Clement replies. “A majority of live programming is internal for the purpose of keeping our investment representatives up to date on issues that are impacting the investment markets, and what they should be talking to their customers about to provide better service.”

      Is business TV via satellite working for Edward Jones? Absolutely. “Our BTVS network has been integrated into the culture of the firm as a vital communications tool, not just as television or video,” Clement observes. Among its benefits is “the ability to target messages to many different groups within the organization based on their needs. It helps to reinforce training strategies, supports the firm’s brand efforts and addresses the need for timely information related to the ups and downs of the stock and bond markets both domestically and internationally.”

      As for the future? Well, Edward Jones is planning to grow globally by expanding its network to 25,000 sites. For Clement, making this happen will be challenging, due to the “cultural and language differences, costs per site, and the logistics to support a 9,000-plus site network growing to a 25,000 site network.” Still, it’s worthwhile, because such a move will integrate the firm’s European offices more tightly into Edward Jones’ corporate culture.

      On a broader scale, “we will continue to improve the types of programs we offer for all audiences, while aligning the program content to other areas in the firm,” Clement says. Meanwhile, “as more bandwidth becomes available on the ground, we will be considering migrating some of our communication paths–both data and video–to that technology. In the future, I expect our BTV content to be delivered using a hybrid approach. In other words, some elements will be broadcast over satellite and others over terrestrial, while IP- based content will utilize whatever bandwidth is available.”

      The bottom line: for Edward Jones, BTVS’ Return on Investment (ROI) more than justifies its cost. Given that their business is maximizing ROI, Edward Jones’ reliance on BTVS speaks volumes.

      Maintaining Excellence

      If ever a car company lived and died on its reputation for quality, it is Volvo, a name many people equate with reliable, safe and solid automobiles.

      Not surprisingly, the managers at Volvo Cars of North America know this. That is why–with the help of Convergent Media Systems and Hughes Network Services–they installed a 400-site Venstar (Volvo Enterprise Network) BTVS network. Downlinked to dealerships across North America, Venstar’s goal is to provide effective, fast training and corporate communications to Volvo retail salespeople, technicians and managers from the company’s broadcast studio in Rockleigh, NJ. Launched in May 2001, Venstar is now on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with live training running weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

      “Originally, we looked to this solution to fulfill our expanding training needs,” says Randy Smith, Volvo’s enterprise broadcast manager. “But now that other departments’ managers within Volvo have discovered the powerful capabilities of communicating via Venstar, I don’t know how we’re going to hold them back.”

      To do the actual instructing, Venstar uses a One Touch KnowledgeSite Classroom interactive system. It lets presenters communicate via audio and data with remote classrooms, and also gives remote students the ability to answer multiple choice quizzes using the One Touch Interactive Touchpad.

      “If you’re in a classroom at the dealership, what you’ll typically see is an in-studio host backed by a number of video and multimedia segments,” Smith notes. “The keypad sessions are done similar to the audience help in ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’, with the data being compiled on a central server. These shows can be done either live or recorded. Meanwhile, the sessions which rely on voice responses are, of course, always live.”

      For signal delivery, “We use DirecPC dishes at each dealership to downlink the video and audio via GE 4, the same one used by our parent company Ford (for the Fordstar network),” says Smith. “The keypad data travels over our existing retailer/corporate VSAT network using a larger two-way dish and a different satellite.”

      For Volvo, the benefits of Venstar are numerous. Among them are reducing costly travel and schooling facilities, keeping the dealerships’ staff on-site during training periods, and advising dealers on advance information and corporate promotions as they become available.

      “We can deliver information and training quicker and to a larger base than ever before,” Smith says. “For instance, yesterday we trained 520 people in three programs, all without any of them leaving their workplaces.”

      As for the future? “We have enough room on our system to add more channels,” Smith says. “It’s all a matter of demand: if our dealers want more, Venstar can give them more.”

      BTVS Delivers Real Value

      As the above examples prove, BTVS is a vital part of corporate communications. In other words, for companies like Advance Auto Parts, Bank of America, Edward Jones and Volvo, BTVS isn’t a “nice thing to have” but a “must have.”

      That is a message vendors and service providers should stress when approaching new clients. For those who use it, BTVS makes a real difference to the bottom line.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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