Calif. Charter System Gets In the Swim

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Charter Communications Inc. has taken a big dive into co-branding and marketing with its commitment to support an aquatic center in the city of Long Beach, Calif., the site of this year's U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials.

Local executives said the company paid a “six-figure sum” in cash and advertising trade-outs for the naming rights and the chance to install and brand a 20-by-27-foot jumbo viewing screen.

That's a hefty sum for a venue that will disappear later this month. Built in the parking lot of the Long Beach Convention Center for just a two-month event, it will be dismantled afterwards.

The operator was brought into the project by the city's Visitors and Convention Authority, and when Charter found out the big screen was a piece of technology the venture needed, “we stepped up to the plate,” said regional vice president of communications Craig Watson.

VITAL STATS

Charter became the exclusive broadband provider to the center, which includes two 50-meter, above-ground pools, seating for 10,000 spectators and an international press center. By the time the meets wrap up, an estimated 115,000 people will have attended events there.

The cable operator is using the aquatic center and its high-profile sporting events — which have already included swim meets and a water polo competition — to tout the commercial launch July 4 of its all-digital service offering in the local system serving Long Beach and Signal Hill.

During the last few weeks, the company has quietly converted all of its programming to digital for customers on that platform.

Analog customers will still be able to get the same programming they're accustomed to without the aid of a converter, said Watson. Charter calls the process simulcasting.

The conversions have already led to some sales opportunities, he said. The digital feed is about five seconds slower than what's delivered via analog, so in homes with multiple sets, consumers have noticed the delay and called the system, he said.

That's given the operator a chance to explain the system improvements and perhaps market an upgrade for the analog sets, he noted.

At events at the center, such as the Janet Evans Invitational meet, the cable company rolled out an advertising campaign consisting of spots featuring the local manager, Eric Brown, and Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill. The 30-second spots note that when Long Beach needed a technology partner, it turned to Charter, Watson said.

HOT SPOT FOR 150

Charter's participation includes hard-wiring the swim stadium's press area, but also turning the entire venue into a wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) hot spot.

Charter Business Services divisional director of data services Michael Mulcahy said the Wi-Fi zone could accommodate more than 150 simultaneous users. The maximum number depends on the amount of bandwidth each uses.

“We're following the trend the city wants to go in,” Mulcahy added, noting that Long Beach itself set up municipally sponsored hot spots three years ago, downtown and at the Long Beach Airport.

Charter will also use the swim center project to promote, in partnership with NBC Cable Networks, broadcast and cable coverage of the Olympic Games from Greece in HDTV.

Charter executives are excited about the potential of the all-digital offering, especially in the wake of consumer research they've conducted. Watson said consumers were exposed at the same time to DirecTV Inc.'s direct-broadcast satellite product compared against Charter's all digital offering.

Two out of three participating consumers said they preferred cable's offering, according to Watson.

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