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Dish chairman Charlie Ergen challenges broadcasters and carriers, 'we're not afraid of change'

Dish chairman Charlie Ergen challenges broadcasters and carriers, 'we're not afraid of change'

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Charlie Ergen Dish
Charlie Ergen Dish

Charlie Ergen, chairman and co-founder of Dish Network, said today at the D: Dive into Media conference that he doesn't "want to kill ads, I think advertising is great." It's not a ridiculously obvious thing for him to say, given than Dish's headline product right now is the Hopper, which lets users automatically skip commercials. He says he would like a world where the DVR is better able to target more meaningful ads to users, but the broadcasters aren't working with the company. In fact, Ergen relayed several areas where his company is trying to innovate on both the television and the wireless space, but he admits that it's an uphill battle to take on these entrenched players.

Dish is embroiled in a series of high-profile lawsuits against broadcasters over its cable skipping technology. So instead of working together to determine the future of television advertising, Ergen says that "Lawsuits, litigation today will ultimately decide the fate of commercials." He's not pleased with that, of course, claiming that broadcasters "would outlaw the DVR" if they had their way. Comparing his company's philosophy to the broadcast networks, Ergen was blunt: "We're not afraid of change. Most companies, when they become successful, resist change no matter what. I believe it's less risky, long-term, to embrace change."

"More than likely, we'll sow the seeds of our own destruction."

Ergen's hopes that TV would move forward weren't just limited to commercials. "We're still for a la carte," he says, noting that the big companies that create content are throwing up roadblocks. That's ultimately counterproductive, he argues, leading to cord-cutters, a phenomenon he says is real. Plus, he says "It's pretty easy to steal on the internet." Like cigarette companies, Ergen jokes that "I think we ought to hook them when they're young" on for-pay cable TV. Will cable companies and broadcasters get their act together in time? Ergen is not optimistic, "More than likely, we'll sow the seeds of our own destruction and someone like Amazon or Netflix will do it for us."

In the face of these entrenched players, Dish has been looking at another option for expansion: launching a wireless network. Ergen doesn't position this as the company moving into a completely different space. "First and foremost we're a video company. We want to do video inside and outside the house." Ergen says that "Ideally we'd like to build [our own] network," but there are challenges to doing that on its own. "It's better to work with somebody who is already in the business," he says, and that's the reason the company put in a bid for Clear, trying to pull it out from under Sprint. He wouldn't confirm that Dish was in talks with Google about wireless service, however.

"The deck is stacked against us."

Ergen doesn't know that his company's bid will actually be successful, "The deck is stacked against us, for a variety of reasons." If it happens, however, Dish could actually aim to become a real wireless player, "Ideally, we could compete with AT&T and Verizon." Otherwise, Dish would likely just need to sell the spectrum it's already acquired. Ergen admits that Dish is a small company fighting this fight, and hinted that perhaps another player might have a better chance, saying that "Apple could buy all the wireless companies tomorrow! [...] We're on foodstamps."

Yet another area where Dish essentially was taking a shot at a new market was with Blockbuster. Ergen admits that it was "basically too late" to take on Netflix and confirmed that one of the original goals was to use the stores to sell phones. He sees Amazon as a real competitor there, but Netflix is "going to change the paradigm" and it's already doing much of the work that Ergen himself has been trying to do — and "by the way, no commercials, they're not getting sued." The future of the Blockbuster brand is apparently still in flux, its streaming service notwithstanding.

"We're a little bit like an Indiana Jones movie, we're always in trouble," Ergen says, and that attitude helps explain much of what Dish does — it's a company that Ergen claims has "a plan a, b, c, and d." If it's going to be successful in TV or wireless, Dish may need all of the above — and Ergen seems more than willing to try them all.