Lifetime, Groups: Dear Charlie

Women’s groups decrying the absence of Lifetime Television and Lifetime Movie Network on Dish Network in 2006 have banded together in the form of an open letter to EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman Charlie Ergen.

More than 50 women’s organizations and advocates affixed their names to a letter that ran as a full-page ad in the Wednesday editions of The New York Times, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, the latter two of which serve the DMA around EchoStar’s Littleton, Colo., headquarters.

In the Times, the letter was flanked by a “Switch from Dish Now” advertisement from Time Warner Cable.

Dish dropped Lifetime and its spinoff on New Year’s Day after the programmer’s contract expired Dec. 31. EchoStar claimed that Lifetime asked for a 76% hike in its license fee for its two networks and carriage for a third service -- an assertion Lifetime denied.

In addition to the Lifetime-sponsored ad campaign, women have held rallies in Greenville, S.C., and Houston in support of Lifetime, with another one set for Thursday in Denver.

Lifetime officials -- who had maintained that there hadn’t been any negotiations since last year -- now say the parties have re-engaged in discussions.

“We hope to get back on Dish with a fair and reasonable rate that reflects our value as the two most popular women’s networks,” Lifetime Entertainment Services CEO Betty Cohen said in a prepared statement.

EchoStar confirmed that it is in talks with Lifetime again.

“We’ve had meaningful negotiations over the past few days and have made significant progress on the rate, and both sides have compromised,” EchoStar spokesman Mark Cicero said. “We’re working hard to protect our customers, and we want to achieve a rate that’s fair and we want to get the programming on our air as soon as possible.”

Lifetime said Wednesday that it had only proposed a modest increase for Lifetime and LMN that would amount to four cents per subscriber, per month.

EchoStar stood by its claim that the rate increase amounted to 76% over the term of the contract, according to Cicero. And if Lifetime would be willing to waive confidentiality, EchoStar would make public the programmer’s initial proposal, he added.

“We will prove to people that that is indeed what they asked for,” he said.

The letter signed by the women’s groups, asking to “Please Put Lifetime Back on the Air,” comes on “behalf of the more than 10 million women our organizations represent across the country,” and it was written “with deep concern and regret” that Dish “decided to take the No. 1 and No. 2 highest-rated women’s networks off the air.”

The missive added, “Your drastic, unnecessary actions and unwillingness” to restore the networks suggest “that you do not listen to what women want and do not have their best interests in mind.”

The letter appeared opposite a facing ad from Time Warner Cable headlined, “Attention Dish Network Customers … Take Back Your Lifetime!.” The ad mentioned a special Time Warner offer, with packages staring as low as $39.95 per month. It also touted a promotion in which the MSO will send Dish customers who make the switch $200 checks after they become Time Warner customers for two months.

Time Warner wasn’t the only distributor offering Dish subscribers incentives to switch due to the Lifetime drop. Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Bright House Networks, Verizon Communications Inc., U.S. Digital Television Inc. and even DirecTV Inc. have extended offers to Dish subscribers, as well, according to Lifetime.

Among the women’s groups that signed the letter to Ergen: Breast Cancer Action, Girls Inc., Men Can Stop Rape, National Council of Women’s Organizations, National Women’s Political Caucus, WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Diseases, Women’s Sports Foundation and YWCA of the USA.