Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen — once tossed out of a Las Vegas casino for card counting — was poker-faced again on Monday in discussing his plans for Blockbuster. In a conference call with analysts he wouldn’t say whether he’ll continue to rent DVDs at lots of bricks and mortar stores, or gut that business in favor of slapping the Blockbuster name on an Internet streaming service for movies and TV shows. Ergen says his plans will roll out like an episode of Seinfeld: “You’ll have to wait (for the last two minutes) to see how it all comes together,” Ergen says. “Seinfeld was a show about nothing. So this could be a strategy about nothing if you’re skeptical. But we feel we have a purpose.” Yet if Ergen has a strategy, then he contradicted himself by saying that he’ll have conversations with Hollywood studios over the next few weeks to see what they want. “If studios want a physical (retail) presence, there’s a lot of reason to keep stores open,” he says. Blockbuster has about 1,700 stores and Dish hasn’t decided how many to shutter. The company says that only about 370 of the stores are profitable. So is Ergen leaning toward a digital strategy? Maybe, or maybe not: He says that Netflix “has a formidable and perhaps insurmountable lead” in attracting subscribers who want to stream programming to smartphones, tablet computers, and TV sets. Ergen says he likes the option of having a Web service in part because cable programmers are changing the rules for pay TV. “Some of our programming partners require us to buy 20 channels from them, but (on the Internet) offer them a la carte.” He cited ESPN and CNN as examples of channels that offer “enough in clips (online) so you don’t need the entire channel.” Whatever Ergen decides to do with Blockbuster, it won’t be a big risk: He says he could sell all of Blockbuster’s DVDs and other assets and make back all of the $320 million he spent to buy the company out of bankruptcy.
Although most of the questions in the conference call dealt with Blockbuster and the agreement unveiled this morning to pay $500 million to TiVo to settle their longstanding patent infringement dispute, Dish’s stock price is up nearly 16% in mid-day trading after it announced 1Q earnings that far exceeded analyst expectations. Helped by a $5 a month price increase in February, the company reported a net profit of $549 million, up 138% vs. the same period last year, on revenues of $3.2 billion, up 5.5%. The earnings came in at $1.22 per share. The average forecast among 20 analysts who follow Dish was 68 cents a share. Earlier in the day, the company announced that it has appointed Dish exec Michael Kelly as Blockbuster president.
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