Dish Network co-founder and chairman Charlie Ergen says the satellite provider’s carriage dispute with HBO shows no signs of letting up, and he predicts a blackout lasting through the mid-April return of Game of Thrones would increase piracy.
The HBO situation “will be interesting because people will find another way to get it,” Ergen said. On that same theme at another point in the call, he said, “Every young person knows how to go onto the internet and get a code and get HBO. We hate to talk about piracy, but that will be the result.”
Dish president and CEO W. Erik Carlson said there has been “no meaningful movement” in talks with HBO about the impasse, the first in the network’s nearly five-decade history. He estimated that the blackout, which began in November, along with a separate ongoing struggle with Univision, accounted for about half of the 334,000 subscriber losses in the quarter. That gloomy stat punctuated an overall lackluster quarter, which has sent shares in Dish down sharply today.
Ergen, a Tennessee-born mountaineer who cuts an outspoken and controversial figure in the TV business, was asked repeatedly about the implications of the HBO and Univision disputes during the hour-long call. He renewed his criticism of the AT&T-Time Warner deal, blaming it for the “anti-competitive behavior” of HBO in its dealings with Dish. He later characterized Dish as a “little pipsqueak in a world of big companies,” which harms its leverage.
HBO “hasn’t had any real new shows” on air during the impasse, Ergen said. “Their main claim to fame is Game of Thrones and that hasn’t been on during the period they’ve been down. Realistically you’d expect a pickup of defections” come April, he said. Dish closed the fourth quarter with 12.3 million total pay-TV subscribers, with 2.4 million of those coming via the “skinny-bundle,” internet-delivered service Sling TV.
Given that subscribers tend to flee their pay-TV providers soon after their favorite programming goes dark, Dish executives were asked if subscriber losses will moderate in 2019. “We are seeing declining customer attrition but I wouldn’t give guidance that we’re through all of it,” Carlson said.
In the case of Univision, whose outage had been described last year by Ergen as “likely permanent,” the Hispanic media company saw a “perfect storm” of a total management reorganization on the eve of the contract expiration, Ergen said on the call. Vince Sadusky took over as Univision’s CEO in June 2018, the same month the Spanish-language broadcast network went dark. Sports network Univision Deportes followed in November.
That series of events “makes it hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Ergen mused. “It’s not for lack of trying on Univision management’s part or our part.”
Summing up, Ergen added, “HBO is not trying; Univision is trying. But they’re different situations.”
The irony of Dish doing without Univision, the longtime mainstay of Hispanic programming, is that the satellite provider was ahead of the pack in offering Dish Latino, a package tailored to U.S. Hispanic consumers. Thanks in part to the service, dozens of targeted, U.S. Spanish-language networks have reached the airwaves. Ergen said the loss of Univision channels would likely mean the company could charge between $10 and $15 less for Dish Latino (whose packages range from $30 to $80 a month). The company will also provide customers with an antenna to pick up Univision’s signal over the air.
Asked if direct-to-consumer offerings by HBO and Univision have exacerbated the tension on the traditional bundle, Ergen shrugged, “That’s where the world is going.” That shift in consumer behavior and advancing technology prompted the company to launch Sling, he added.
The traditional business of connecting customers to video via satellite “isn’t going away,” he emphasized. “People in rural America don’t always have the option” to switch to a streaming app via a broadband signal. “There are places where competition can’t go,” he said. “We have unique areas of our business.” The rural skew of Dish’s footprint means it under-indexes in terms of HBO subscriptions relative to its pay-TV peers, which became a source of friction during contract renewal talks.
Asked by one analyst whether subscriber declines at rival DirecTV as well as at Dish might lead the companies to explore a joint venture as a way of containing costs, Ergen said AT&T’s ownership of DirecTV as well as HBO makes that a non-starter. “If they’re sticking a gun to your head and taking HBO off,” he said, “there’s not likely to be a lot of conversation. We’re not good at having a gun to our head.”