How did pay-TV's most aggressive player arrive at this juncture? By failing to see the world changing around him. Ergen, 55, focused on keeping costs low (he famously requires executives to share hotel rooms on business trips) and declined to bid for the pro football and Nascar programming that DirecTV offers exclusively to sports-loving satellite subscribers. He skimped on marketing even as DirecTV and the cable and phone companies hired actors and star athletes to hawk their services. He missed the high-definition revolution, concentrating instead on flashy technology, such as set-top boxes that can control TVs in two separate rooms. DirecTV, meanwhile, lured new subscribers with dozens more channels in crystal-clear high-definition.
It's not clear, however, that these moves will be enough to boost Dish into a sustainable orbit. If AT&T bolts to DirecTV, as seems increasingly likely, Ergen would be left with a few small regional phone companies as partners. That could force him to do something he really doesn't want to do: merge Dish with DirecTV, which is controlled by Liberty Media, the company owned by his archrival John Malone. A painful choice, for sure, but possibly Charlie Ergen's only real option.