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DirecTV Dishes Up A La Carte Plate

DirecTV Inc. last week announced the channel lineup last week for its much-anticipated "Family Pack" programming tier, set to launch July 1 at $5 per month, following a free subscriber preview from May 25 through June 30.

Included in the tier are Odyssey, PBS Kids, Discovery Kids, The Biography Channel, Do It Yourself, Boomerang, Oxygen, SoapNet and a national PBS feed.

DirecTV created Family Pack as an optional tier, rather than adding all of the new channels to existing packages, partly due to cost considerations, senior vice president of programming Stephanie Campbell said.

But the idea for the new tier also came from DirecTV research that showed the subjects of family, women and health were high among people's lists of priorities today.

Campbell declined to disclose DirecTV's target subscriber goal for the package. The company plans to market Family Pack extensively over the summer, and the new channels will gain high exposure among current subscribers who have access to the free preview, she added.

The direct-broadcast satellite company announced last week that its total subscriber base exceeded 8.3 million last month, including about 1 million medium-power PrimeStar by DirecTV customers.

DirecTV signed 160,000 net new customers in March, for its strongest non-December month to date. It also converted an additional 105,000 customers from PrimeStar to its high-power service.

While most programmers vie for carriage on the most widely penetrated packages, network executives interviewed for this story were pleased with distribution on Family Pack.

"What's most important to us is that they're national," Odyssey chief operating officer Lana Corbi said. "Anyone can pick us up no matter where they are in the country."

Subscriber numbers are better for broad-based packages such as DirecTV's "Total Choice," Corbi admitted. But carriage on Family Pack "gives us an environment designed for people who are concerned about families. It makes sense as a place for us to be clustered," she said.

Odyssey targets adults aged 18 to 54, Corbi said, adding that the programming allows families to watch television together again. "We've gotten away from that," she said. "People tend to scatter. Socially, that's been a general problem for families."

Family Pack gives PBS Kids its first carriage as a 24-hour service, although the programming is available to PBS broadcast stations across the country.

At first glance, a 24-hour channel aimed at preschoolers might seem like overkill. But vice president of program scheduling and PBS channels Steven Gray called the channel "a safe harbor-something that can be there as a night-light to soothe a sick child."

He added that with all of the different time zones served by satellite-from Hawaii to Maine-there's almost no hour of the day when the service couldn't find a potential audience among children.

PBS Kids features preschooler favorites such as Arthur, Barney & Friends, Dragon Tales, Teletubbies and Between the Lions, as well as Mister Rogers'Neighborhood and Wishbone.

The new Family Pack is DirecTV's first a la carte tier, Campbell said. But it is not likely to start a trend toward more a la carte choices for DirecTV subscribers. "It took us almost six years to get to the point where we'd add a new tier," she added.

DBS competitor EchoStar Communications Corp. also offers a la carte programming, but only to customers that actively seek it out. From the beginning, the company has made a "Dish Pix" service available, whereby subscribers can choose 10 basic channels for $14.95 per month, with certain restrictions.

And with the debut of its "America's Top 150" package, which launched early this month, EchoStar now offers two new a la carte packages at $4.99 each per month-"Action Pak" and "Encore Movie Pak." All of the channels in the packages are also available on AT150, which sells for $39.99 per month.

Action Pak includes Speedvision, CNN/SI, DIY, Outdoor Life Network, Outdoor Channel and Discovery Wings. Encore Movie Pak includes an Encore West Coast feed plus five Encore thematic channels: Westerns, Action, Mystery, True Stories and Love Stories.

Subscribers who take either of the two new a la carte packages would need "Dish 500" hardware systems that can see satellites at both 119 and 110 degrees west longitude.

During last Monday's on-air Charlie Chat with subscribers, EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen took a call from a Dish Pix customer who wanted to know why more Dish Network programming wasn't available a la carte.

"In our programming contracts, we're prevented from doing everything on an a la carte basis," Ergen replied, especially in dealing with programmers that control multiple networks.

EchoStar plans to add Discovery Health to its "America's Top 100" package on May 1, Ergen said. That's the same day the company will increase the price of the package by $1. Subscribers whose rates are hiked will also receive $3.99 coupons good toward pay-per-view events in their May billing statements.

DirecTV also plans to raise its prices in last May, but only for new subscribers.