“Is it one month from now or two years from now? I don’t know,” he said during a conference call with analysts and reporters to discuss Dish’s second-quarter results.
Ergen has floated the merger scenario numerous times in recent years, noting that antitrust regulators have indicated they were not ready to bless such a combination. But the satellite business is also shrinking dramatically. Dish reported 11.27 pay-TV subscribers as of June 30, which is off 6% from 2019, with about 9 million satellite subscribers.
The downturn has been similar at DirecTV. Last month, AT&T CEO John Stankey said when the company bought DirecTV for $49 billion in 2015, it “didn’t necessarily make that move because we love satellite as a technology.” Rather, it was a means of acquiring customers it could migrate to other systems. As of June 30, AT&T had about 17.7 million pay-TV subscribers, including DirecTV. The company lost nearly 2 million video subscribers in the first half of 2020, up from 1.57 million in the first half of 2019.
Ergen said Dish’s footprint, which emphasizes rural areas and small businesses, will keep its satellite dishes in place for some time, even though subscriber counts are continuing to drift down.
“There’s a solid group of people in rural America and small businesses” as well as airlines still willing to stay in the fold. “We don’t see that going away.”
Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, reiterated his “sell” rating on Dish in a note to clients Friday. “Rural America is about to get a lot smaller,” he wrote, alluding to Dish’s addressable market. With a likely infusion of federal funding to pay for broadband expansion, backed by private capital, Dish would face competition from companies like Charter and Comcast, which are thriving on broadband expansion and providing customers with increasing options for streaming video.
“Ironically, bringing broadband to more of rural America might actually make it easier to get regulatory approval for a Dish/DirecTV merger,” Moffett added, noting that an early effort in 2002 collapsed due to monopoly fears in rural markets. Financing an AT&T-Dish deal, though, would be harder, he argued. “Without the defensible rural segment to fall back to, there would be no floor, and no future, for satellite TV.”
Having acquired Boost Mobile during the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, Dish has been continuing to move toward wireless services as its new frontier. Almost the entirety of the hour-long call was devoted to executives’ insights about technologies like milimeter wave and C band, a different neighborhood than the TV distribution realm that has been Dish’s focus for three-plus decades.
In the quarter, Dish beat Wall Street estimates with earnings of 78 cents per share and revenue of $3.19 billion.
The company’s TV subscriber count was helped by COVID-19 in terms of the rate of decline. Net subscribers fell by 96,000 in the period compared with the year-ago quarter, with 56,000 of those at Sling TV, the company’s internet-delivered TV bundle.
Ergen was asked by one analyst to respond to the wave of direct-to-consumer streaming launches by Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and others, which sometimes put programming in multiple places. “The rates should come down” for programming that isn’t exclusive to Dish, he said. “If that product is available somewhere else, the value to us goes down.”
Dish remains at an impasse with HBO and the regional sports networks formerly owned by Fox and now controlled by a consortium led by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Ergen and the executive team did not address those standoffs on the call.