Dish Network Drives Interactive Games

EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network has upped the interactive-TV ante, offering customers trivia games from Buzztime Entertainment and Fantasy Cup Auto Racing based on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing series.

They’re the fifth and sixth pay-to-play interactive services for EchoStar, which now sports 22 Open TV Inc.-enabled interactive applications that reach about 8 million of the 9.4 million total Dish subscribers.

For $3.99 per month, Buzztime provides trivia games in six categories: general trivia; movies and TV; music; sports; history and kids.

Up to four players per set-top can play against each other using Buzztime’s new “Pass the Remote” user interface.

Silverstar Holdings, a division of NASCAR, is providing Dish Fantasy Cup Auto Racing for $4.99 per month. Auto-racing fans can compete in monthly contests by picking eight drivers in four categories based on current NASCAR Nextel Cup standings. Weekly and full-season prizes will be awarded to winners.

The launch brings a tremendous audience boost for NTN Communications Inc.’s Buzztime, which has been deployed by Comcast Corp. in Baltimore, Time Warner Cable in Portland, Maine, and by Susquehanna Communications.

The EchoStar deployment is its largest to date, by far.

Buzztime president and COO Ty Lam said the Dish product was a breakthrough for Buzztime, too, in that participants aren’t competing against players in other homes. “This is a whole new category of games for us and I don’t know if anybody has ever done this before,” he said.

“The back channel is nice but it’s not crucial,” Lam said. Some game-players thrive on competing against maybe hundreds of others around the country. “But others — a lot of people like families and little parties — just want to sit around the living room and play against each other. It’s almost like opening up a box of Trivial Pursuit.”

EchoStar director of ITV Scott Higgins said the DBS provider has taken a “very pragmatic and systematic approach” since launching ITV services in 2001. “We’ve gradually increased the complexity,” he said.

Dish started with an interactive program guide and weather service in 2000, then created a portal in 2002 “that is the gateway into all our interactive services,” Higgins said. Dish added games, horoscopes and business news, then followed up with a customer-support application, complete with frequently asked questions.

By the fall of 2003, Dish launched a fantasy football game at $9.99 for the season. It also offers PlayJam, a gaming service, for $4.99 a month; Playin TV for $4.99 a month; and KidsWise for $2.99 a month.

In all, Dish offers 22 channels of interactive programming. Channel 100 contains Dish’s interactive menu, which features customer support, weather, games, sports and entertainment.

Other content providers include AccuWeather, Tribune Media Services’ Zap2it and Bloomberg L.P.

EchoStar hasn’t released subscriber counts for its subscription packages, but Higgins said Dish wouldn’t be adding new services if the packages weren’t popular.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “That will tell you there must be some significant usage of these products.

“People are asking more from the service, like, 'How can I play another Dish customer?’ ”

Cable operators largely shy away from providing too many a la carte choices, but Dish’s philosophy differs.

“I don’t know what one individual subscriber will want to buy,” Higgins said. By offering a la carte services, Dish consumers can pick and choose from content that appeals to them.

“The ITV service is put together in a way to complement the existing packages that we have,” Higgins said.

Later this year, Dish will add a shopping service from the Sharper Image, its first shopping application on the platform.