Peter Kafka

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Charlie Ergen Ticks Off the TV Guys, Again

broken-tvLast year, Charlie Ergen used CES to lob a bomb at the TV establishment, and ended up fighting the TV networks in court. 2013 could end up shaping up the same way.

Yesterday, Ergen’s Dish Network used the gadget show to unveil several new improvements for its “Hopper” service, including one that will certainly upset the TV networks: A feature that will let Dish customers watch any show they’ve paid to see, on any device they want, when and where they want to watch it.

If this seems like a pretty basic concept, it is. And it’s one the rest of the TV industry has been trying to roll out for the past few years.

The difference: The TV networks and the pay-TV providers working on “TV Everywhere” schemes have been arduously hammering out an assortment of deals, which means that some subscribers to some TV services can watch some shows under some conditions but not others.

Ergen, on the other hand, seems to have simply gone ahead and rolled the feature out, without asking Time Warner, Comcast or anyone else for permission. And he and his employees seem happy to go to court.

“We’re trying to be at the forefront of existing technology,” Dish CEO Joe Clayton told Bloomberg. “If that means some lawsuits, OK.”

This sounds a whole lot like last year, when Dish put its thumb in TV’s eye by rolling out a DVR that automatically skipped ads on some programs. That freaked out the networks, for obvious reasons, and some of them ended up taking Ergen to court a few months later; the case is still working its way through the system.

In theory, if Ergen wins either fight, it could be a big deal for the TV ecosystem. But I’m not sure how much consumers actually care about either outcome. After all, it’s pretty simple to fast-forward through ads on your own. And while the notion of being able to watch a new episode of “The Office” on your iPad without paying extra would be nice, it’s an incremental improvement. Not a game changer.

My hunch is that in both cases Ergen is less interested in the feature than in the leverage he thinks it will give him if gets to use it. I can imagine a scenario where Ergen gets to keep the ad-skipping feature, but disables it in exchange for a break on programming fees. Same for the TV Everywhere stuff.

But no need for me to speculate about this stuff. We’ll be able to ask Ergen himself when he appears at our D: Dive Into Media conference in February. If you want to hear his answer in person, sign up here.

 


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus