In the end, it was a 20-foot-tall inflatable eagle—with a 22-foot-long wingspan—that earned Buford Media Group recognition as CableWORLD‘s 2005 Independent Operator of the Year. And it’s the story behind that red, white and blue eagle that has become part of cable industry folklore in small markets throughout north Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. In the year since it debuted, Buford’s eagle has become a symbol for rural cable’s fight against DBS. It demonstrates how small, independent cable operators can be strong, confident and aggressive when taking on the much bigger and deeper-pocketed satellite distributors. And it shows how they can use their local advantages to combat DBS’ national marketing campaigns. The story of Buford’s eagle began last June in Mena, Ark., a small town that had seen DBS make huge gains: DirecTV and EchoStar boast a combined penetration that is more than double the national average. The satellite distributors have a penetration rate of more than 48%, according to statistics from Media Business Corp. Buford has operated the Mena system under the "Allegiance" brand since mid-April 2004, when it picked up the system from Cox. During the first couple of weeks overseeing marketing for Buford’s systems, VP, marketing, Cynthia Boles kept hearing about a 5-foot inflatable pig on the roof of the satellite reseller that operated next door to Buford’s Mena office. The pig was part of EchoStar’s infamous "Cable Pig" campaign. It was situated in such a way that it stared right at the cable system’s office. More disconcerting: The pig and its message—that cable companies gouge their subscribers—were in plain view of Mena City Hall, which is across the street. Boles decided it was time for the independent operator to fight satellite’s aggressive tactics with an equal amount of aggression. She found the inflatable eagle on the Internet and convinced Buford CEO Ben Hooks and president/COO Kay Monigold to OK the expense. In June, Boles had a team install the eagle on Buford’s roof, positioning the bird so that it appeared ready to attack the much smaller anti-cable pig. "He’s a little large, but it has been well worth it," Boles says. "It helped early on to set the tone that we were trying to do a new thing; that we weren’t wanting to look like everybody else. And we were trying to not look like just another cable company." Thus the legend of Buford’s eagle was born. The eagle starred in commercials that ran in all of Buford’s markets, and in the ensuing months it become something of a celebrity in small towns throughout Buford’s footprint. The eagle’s visits (complete with stakes, guide wires and a Honda power generator that kept it inflated) became community events. It went out for Halloween and appeared in parades. Its denouement may have been when it won an award for best float in a parade in Perryton, Texas. So what’s the big deal about an inflatable eagle—especially since even Boles admits that she can’t quantify how effective it’s been in winning back subscribers? ("I’m prepared to live with the ambiguity," she says.) Buford’s eagle may not have the brand recognition of Morris the Cat or Charley Tuna, but it has proved to be a recognizable brand in Buford’s smaller markets. The eagle, which may seem like a somewhat amateurish marketing gimmick by New York City standards, is suited for the small communities that Buford serves. "Buford is a leader in every aspect of this business," ACA president Matt Polka says. "They are taking independent cable to places that it has not been before." And that’s why CableWORLD is recognizing Buford Media Group: It represents all the independent operators fighting on the front lines against DBS, literally rolling up their sleeves to battle rivals that typically offer more channels at a cheaper price. "One of the things that we are trying to play up and really working on is the fact that we are local," Boles says. "We are your friends and neighbors. You know us. These are people that you can find." So what’s next on Buford’s marketing front? Boles wants to poke more fun at satellite’s cable pig campaign. She’s hoping to roll out a pig beauty contest, where people would dress up their pigs, with the prettiest winning an award. And she’s ready to start gaining loyalty and winning back small market subscribers that have been heading over to satellite.

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