EchoStar Toasts a Decade of Dish Network

EchoStar Communications Corp. CEO Charlie Ergen used his monthly on-air chat with subscribers Monday night to tout the 10-year anniversary of the company’s Dish Network direct-broadcast satellite service.

EchoStar launched the service in 1996, backed by a single satellite and the brand name Digital Information Super Highway (Dish for short), along with a promotional spokescharacter named “DishMan.” Last month, it launched its 11th satellite.

Ergen and Charlie Chat co-host Jim DeFranco, EchoStar’s executive vice president, boasted that just as in 1996, Dish still offers a 40-channel package for $19.99 a month.

“When we first launched, all we had to offer was 40 channels,” DeFranco said.

Dish recently introduced a family-friendly tier that the company said would continue to be priced at $19.99 until February 2008.

Ergen plans to continue to pursue more a la carte programming options as soon as programming contracts allow for it. “Probably the No. 1 thing I hear from customers is it’s frustrating to pay for programming they don’t watch,” he said.

Dish Network sent its first signals to customers on March 16, 1996, and built up to 100,000 subscribers within four months. Dish signed its 12 millionth subscriber in December.

Last Monday’s chat included testimonials from customers who signed up in 1996, as well as programmers who’ve signed on over the past decade, including HDNet president and co-founder Mark Cuban.

Ergen and DeFranco welcomed longtime Dish customer Hilde Wexler for a studio appearance. She recounted how she was initially unable to get Dish due to restrictive covenants and said EchoStar helped fight those restrictions.

Wexler said signing up for Dish “was not inexpensive” in 1996, because the company was not yet giving away the hardware and installation. “It was an act of faith,” Wexler said. “It was worth it.”

A Dish customer from Indianapolis won an African safari donated by Discovery Channel. A few years ago, Ergen took family members on an African safari. The Dish CEO — recently pegged as No. 80 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires — quipped to DeFranco that he couldn’t afford to stay at the exclusive South African lodge in the prize package.

DeFranco opined that the production quality of Charlie Chats probably hadn’t improved over the years. Ergen, proud of a reputation for not spending much money, told viewers that he hadn’t invested in the show’s look “because we don’t want to raise your rates.”

EchoStar senior vice president of programming Eric Sahl interviewed CBS Sports commentator Dick Enberg to help promote March Madness college basketball on local CBS stations and College Sports TV.