With its shares in free fall after a dismal third-quarter earnings report, Dish Network executives faced the music with Wall Street, conceding in an earnings call that they face an array of intensifying challenges.
“We have a narrow path, but there is a path, to achieve financial stability and make sure we meet our commitments,” Chairman Charlie Ergen said. “Having been through this for a long time, we’ve had narrow paths before.”
The company’s shares plunged more than 37% on more than eight times normal trading volume to finish the day at $3.44. It was the stock’s biggest single-day drop in the nearly three decades since it began trading and its lowest closing price in 25 years.
Along with trying to squeeze money out of its legacy pay-TV business, whose subscriber levels are dropping by double-digit year-over-year rates, the company is still trying to pull off a grand strategic pivot. With deep roots are in satellite TV, a business that was booming until about a decade ago, Dish opted to acquire billions of dollars’ worth of spectrum in recent years and sought to crash the wireless party. But doing battle with entrenched, deep-pocketed rivals AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile has proven a daunting prospect. The wireless business is extremely capital-intensive, both in terms of physical infrastructure and consumer marketing, and results so far have undershot Wall Street expectations.
Ergen, who has long cultivated a reputation as an outspoken maverick who savors the chance to stir the industry pot, projected a more reflective tone, at one point even thanking an analyst for his “constructive criticism.” Most corporate earnings calls begin with a lengthy period of scripted remarks by executives, followed by a Q&A session with analysts. This Dish call, by contrast, featured little in the way of prepared comments and almost a full hour taken up by Q&A with analysts and members of the press.
The company’s massive debt load, which is at about 11 times trailing EBITDA (at least triple the level of a healthy company), includes a number of distressed notes scheduled to mature in 2026. Ergen compared getting from here to there to scaling “a pretty big wall” to scale, but he said “my crystal ball says we’re up to that.”
Asked about whether Dish planned to pursue a merger with DirecTV, which is now a privately held entity owned by AT&T and private equity firm TPG, Ergen said there are other priorities to address. For starters, a recent “We’ve got a ton of stuff in terms of combining the companies and the management teams and making sure we don’t wait on synergies,” he said. “So, we just don’t have any plans for DirecTV based on that.”
Execs were also asked about the company’s view of pay-TV, especially in light of the epic clash in September between Charter and Disney, which Gary Schanman, EVP and Group President, Video Services said Dish is “always looking” at its customer and programmer relationships. Schanman said Dish was “generally aligned with the positioning that Charter took” in hammering out a carriage deal with Disney that entailed dropping coverage for Freeform and several other Disney networks. “Certain parts of the model are broken,” Schanman said. “This company has taken those steps in the past, especially if you look at our history with regional sports networks.”