Dish Network Casts Virtual Vote

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In a move that will see Cable News Network share the same TV screen as foe Fox News Channel and other competitors, EchoStar Communications Corp. plans to supply its subscribers with a virtual channel that will carry election coverage from six networks.

The “election mosaic,” as EchoStar officials call it, will contain feeds from MSNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, C-SPAN, Comedy Central and MTV: Music Television, arranged in a grid.

Although the Election 2004 channel will feature simultaneous video from the six networks, viewers must highlight a particular service in order to hear the appropriate audio feed.

Subscribers will be able to gain access to the mosaic, which will run from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5, on channel 100 on EchoStar’s Dish Network. They’ll also be able to link to the channel by clicking on interactive overlays that EchoStar will run in cross-channel spots that will promote the election coverage.

Dish first deployed the mosaic concept in August for the Summer Olympics, running a virtual channel that contained the feeds of NBC Universal Cable-owned networks that ran coverage from Athens.

ITV firm OpenTV Corp. built both the Olympics channel and the Election 2004 channel.

EchoStar director of interactive programming Scott Higgins said the DBS company is looking into building mosaic channels for other programming genres. He wouldn’t discuss which category he’ll pursue next, but likely candidates include sports and movie channels.

One of the biggest challenges for EchoStar was getting the all-news network rivals to approve the idea.

While the networks agreed to share screen space, they wouldn’t allow EchoStar to add interactive overlays to their respective linear outlets, which would enable subscribers to easily jump to the virtual channel.

“They were not so excited about people leaving their network to go to other networks,” Higgins said. “We respected their rights.”

Fox News vice president of affiliate sales and marketing John Malkin said he thinks the virtual channel could drive new viewers to the network.

“The diehard Fox News Channel fans that are passionate and loyal to the network will go to the network regardless. For those that don’t watch us on a continual basis, this is a way for them to sample us,” Malkin added.

Since EchoStar will carry feeds from all six networks for the two weeks leading up to the election, including entertainment shows, the project will place CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN on the same screen as the kids from Comedy Central’s South Park and MTV videos during some dayparts.

The Election 2004 channel will be available to about 9 million Dish subscribers that have set-tops that run OpenTV middleware.

Joel Hassell, head of OpenTV’s North American operations said the Liberty Media Corp.-controlled firm could build similar mosaic channels for other satellite and cable providers.

“It is a standalone application that we can repurpose for any genre of mosaic that might be offered by another operator,” Hassell said.

OpenTV has built similar mosaic channels for News Corp.’s British Sky Broadcasting Group plc satellite service in the United Kingdom and for Foxtel in Australia.

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