Dish’s Charlie Ergen Talks Satellite Merger, RSNs After Company Lost 194,000 Pay TV Subscribers In Q4

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Updated with comments from conference call: Dish Network chief Charlie Ergen said he thinks it’s inevitable that Dish will ultimate merge with rival DirecTV as pay TV is eroded by cord cutting and other pressures. It seems likely “that those two should get together because the growth in TV is not coming from linear,” Ergen said during a conference call Wednesday to discuss quarterly earnings.

There may still be some regulatory hurdles but a hookup makes sense, “because you can’t swim upstream.” The two satellite broadcasters have tried unsuccessfully to merge in the past but were blocked by federal a world of fewer players and less competition.

Asked about his decision last summer to drop 21 Fox regional sports networks – owned briefly by Disney and now by Sinclair Broadcast Group — Ergen said Disney wanted way too much of a price hike. Disney inherited the networks when it acquired 21st Century Fox.

“Everything we do here is somewhat mathematical. We have real data over a long time of what our customers watch. It does not take rocket science to see what they have and how much and what the value of the programming is. The typical negotiation [by programmers] is, ‘We were getting X and we want X-plus, and that can be in the high single-digits in terms of what people want. We see it as … people are watching  less and the price should go down, and one of the big outliers was regional sports.”

He said the number of subscribers who are regional sports fans and get Dish “is a fraction” of what it was before Dish took the channels down” so in a sense “there’s no reason to put it back and tax the rest of the people.”

“The kind of offer we had from Disney folks at the time the contract was up was not even close to anything that made sense for us. That’s where we are today. Sinclair owns it  [now, but] whether you can put Humpty Dumpty together gain remains a question.”

Dish reported earning Wednesday that saw pay-TV subscribers dropped by 194,000 in the fourth quarter to about 12 million, including 9.4 million for Dish TV subs and 2.59 million for Sling TV.

But the Denver-based company reported a net decrease of 334,000 in the year-ago quarter, so the loss has narrowed year-over-year.

Dish said net income rose to $389 million, or 69 cents a share- beating consensus by a nickel – from $337 million, or 64 cents the year before. Revenue eased to $3.24 billion from $3.31 billion.

ARPU, or average revenue per user, a key metric rose to $87.02 from $85.55.

The shares were up 1.72% in pre-market trade, after notching gains of 3.3% on Tuesday.

The company is holding a conference call with investor at noon to discuss the numbers. Pay TV earnings help Wall Street and the industry determine how and how quickly subscribers are migrating from traditional programming bundles. Dish is in a particularly interesting moment as it is poised to enter the wireless market with a nationwide consumer offering and standalone 5G broadband network following the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. The two companies have agreed to sell assets to Dish that it will use to springboard its wireless launch.

Other big pay-TV companies like Comcast, Charter and Altice USA have also launched wireless operations in a move to diversify revenue sources.

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