Ergen Chats About 10-Year Anniversary

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EchoStar Communications Corp. CEO Charlie Ergen used his monthly on-air chat with subscribers Monday night to tout the 10-year anniversary of the company’s Dish Network direct-broadcast satellite service.

EchoStar launched the service in 1996 backed by a single satellite and the brand name “Digital Information Super Highway” (Dish for short), along with a promotional spokescharacter named “DishMan.” Last month, the company’s 11th satellite was launched into orbit.

Ergen and “Charlie Chat” co-host EchoStar executive vice president Jim DeFranco boasted that just as in 1996, Dish still offers a 40-channel package for $19.99 per month.

“When we first launched, all we had to offer was 40 channels,” DeFranco added.

Dish recently introduced a family-friendly tier that the company said would continue to sell for $19.99 per month until February 2008.

Ergen said he plans to continue to pursue more a la carte programming options as soon as programming contracts allow for them.

“Probably the No. 1 thing I hear from customers is that it’s frustrating to pay for programming they don’t watch,” he added.

Dish sent its first DBS signals to customers March 16, 1996, and it reached the 100,000-subscriber milestone within its first four months of service. The company announced that it signed its 12 millionth subscriber in December. It plans to release fourth-quarter subscriber data Wednesday.

Monday’s chat included testimonials from customers who signed up in 1996, as well as programmers who have signed on over the past decade, including HDNet president and cofounder Mark Cuban.

Ergen and DeFranco welcomed longtime Dish customer Hilde Wexler for a studio appearance. Wexler recounted how she was initially unable to get Dish due to restrictive covenants and noted that the company helped to fight against the restrictions.

According to Wexler, signing up for Dish “was not inexpensive” in 1996 because the company was not yet giving away the hardware and installation. “It was an act of faith,” she added. “It was worth it.”

A Dish customer from Indianapolis won an African safari donated by Discovery Channel to help the DBS company promote the 10-year anniversary. A few years ago, Ergen took family members on an African safari.

The Dish CEO -- who earlier this month ranked 80th on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest billionaires -- quipped to DeFranco that he couldn’t afford to stay at the exclusive South African lodge represented in the prize package.

When DeFranco admitted that the production quality of the Charlie Chats probably hadn’t improved over the years, the infamously frugal Ergen told viewers, “We don’t spend a lot of money on the show because we don’t want to raise your rates.”

EchoStar senior VP of programming Eric Sahl interviewed CBS Sports commentator Dick Enberg to help promote March Madness college basketball on local CBS stations and College Sports Television.

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