EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman Charlie Ergen helped programming partner ESPN break in its two-week-old SportsCenter studio last week when he broadcast his monthly subscriber "Charlie Chat" from the network's headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
ESPN senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches pitched the on-location idea to Ergen about six months ago. "It took a snowball effect" from there, Bratches added.
Last week's chat opened with a tape from ESPN on-air personality Chris Berman, who introduced Ergen as "Choo-Choo Charlie Ergen" and EchoStar executive vice president Jim DeFranco as "Jim DeFranco American."
Later in the one-hour chat, Ergen and DeFranco were visited by ESPN sportscaster Rece Davis, who discussed college football with Ergen, a vocal Tennessee fan.
ESPN gave away free branded T-shirts and caps to each customer whose telephone or e-mail questions were used on last week's chat. In addition, Dish and ESPN gave away a free subscription to the "ESPN Game Plan" college-football package to a customer who answered a college-football trivia question.
Dish also announced during the chat that it will raffle off a chance to win a trip to ESPN's studios to current and new "America's Top 150" subscribers.
In the "Create Your Own Classic" affiliate promotion, winners are brought to ESPN, taught how to edit tapes and allowed to program ESPN Classic for one day. ESPN recently hosted the winner from a Comcast Corp. Philadelphia promotion at its headquarters.
EchoStar tries to run a customer-upgrade program with a programmer every month, vice president of marketing Mary Peterson said. The company will promote the Create Your Own Classic contest through its Dish Entertainment Magazine, monthly newsletter, Web site and perhaps cross-channel spots. The contest closes Oct. 6.
Bratches said he accompanied Ergen, DeFranco and ESPN senior vice president of engineering and technology Chuck Pagano on a tour of ESPN's technical facilities last Tuesday before the show.
"Charlie [Ergen] is very technically oriented," Bratches said, and he enjoyed an engaging conversation with Pagano.
EchoStar sent five producers to Bristol to help support the Charlie Chat broadcast, which is typically held at the company's Littleton, Colo., headquarters.
ESPN put the producers up at a local hotel one to a room-a treat for Dish employees accustomed to sharing rooms while on business travel.
Last week's chat was the first one EchoStar held outside of its own facilities, whether in Wyoming or Colorado. Peterson said the company is open to holding future chats at other programmers' studios, adding that it would typically take four to six months' advance notice to coordinate Ergen's schedule.
Bratches said ESPN has already invited Ergen to bring his chat back to Bristol whenever he wants.
Peterson and Bratches both said it's too early to say whether the chat helped to drive incremental sales of ESPN Game Plan among Dish customers.
"We don't really believe that all 4 million customers watch the Charlie Chat," Peterson admitted, although she said the company did receive more calls and e-mails than usual last week.
The chat was heavily promoted with separate cross-channel spots produced by ESPN and Dish.