Ergen's March Madness

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What did EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman Charlie Ergen get, if anything, from his short-lived stunt of yanking Viacom Inc.'s CBS stations and MTV Networks in 16 markets last week?

Zilch in terms of deal-making or one-upmanship — more dangerously, he earned the ire of 1.6 million Dish Network customers who couldn't get their daily dose of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants.

Had the standoff lasted much longer, he could have lost God knows how many subscribers who couldn't watch this week's college-basketball March Madness opening round on CBS, or ratings winners like Survivor: All-Stars.

If this year's new mantra is “customer care,” it sure fell on deaf ears in Ergen's camp, as he selfishly waged a bitter and public battle with Viacom — a negotiation that should have taken place behind closed doors, and should've been seamless to Dish subscribers.

But that's not Ergen's style. Instead, EchoStar publicly contended that Viacom had used “strong-arm” tactics by insisting that Dish carry cable networks that it did not want — like Nickelodeon spinoff Nicktoons — in exchange for retransmission rights to the CBS owned TV stations.

A recorded message at an EchoStar call center even offered the home telephone number of Viacom president Mel Karmazin for customers who wanted to know what was going on with some of their favorite programming.

In effect, Ergen forced Viacom to go on the offensive. The company did just that, running some very funny newspaper ads featuring a very unhappy SpongeBob, lamenting that EchoStar left its subscribers “high and dry” by yanking those channels.

Well, at least it was funny to me — and lots of other bystanders — because we are not Dish subscribers. But if I were an EchoStar sub, I think I would vote with my feet by just saying no to those stupidly transparent hijinks, and switching to DirecTV Inc. or cable.

In the end, Viacom prevailed late last week, announcing it had come to terms with EchoStar. Dish would carry its CBS station feeds and the MTVN channels in all of its of 9.4 million satellite homes.

Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen declared the outcome, “A Royal Flush for Viacom,” and said she believed the media conglomerate secured a five-year, high-single-digit fee increase for its bundle of cable networks.

In the end, I think what really happened was that college hoops prevailed. I would have bet the ranch last week that Ergen would cave in soon — as he did — because there is no way that he could take the backlash of not carrying CBS's NCAA games.

Nobody should ever mess with March Madness. In an era in which male viewers are fleeing broadcast TV, this zany tradition of watching 64 teams get pared down to the Final Four is a tradition that not even the likes of Ergen could mess with.

There was no way to win the bet he made. It's like me saying today that Stanford, Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and St. Joseph's in Philly are my Final Four picks. (Actually, that doesn't sound too bad.)

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