Dish Network ad-skipping feature Auto Hop irks network TV execs


NEW YORK — Satellite broadcaster Dish Network Corp.’s new Auto Hop feature, which makes it easier for viewers to avoid watching commercials, is not winning the company any fans in the television business.

Dish’s new offering lets customers block commercials from recorded shows that have aired on broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox during the previous day.

Although consumers with digital video recorders can already fast-forward through commercials of recorded shows, Auto Hop takes it a step further. The screen goes black when a commercial break appears. A few seconds later, the program returns. The Auto Hop feature can’t be used on a show during the same day that it’s being broadcast, or on live programming, such as a sporting event, that has been recorded.

“I think this is an attack on our ecosystem,” NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert told reporters.

During the network’s presentation of its fall schedule to advertisers Monday at Radio City Music Hall, Harbert told advertisers that Dish’s commercial zapping device is an “insult” to all the money NBC and its parent, Comcast Corp., spend on sports and entertainment programming. “Just because technology gives you the ability to do something, does that mean you should? Not always,” Harbert said.

With more than 14 million subscribers, Dish Network’s new technology is of great concern to the networks and advertisers. Dish’s announcement of its new service came last week, days before the major broadcast networks presented their schedules to advertisers who are already worried about the effectiveness of their commercials as technology changes the way people view television.

Dish’s new technology is offered for use only on broadcast programming, not shows from cable networks. Dish spokesman Bob Toevs said there was no technological reason that Auto Hop wouldn’t work on cable, but that it was being offered for use only on broadcast shows because those are most popular with Dish customers.

Toevs said the satellite broadcaster “believes that consumers deserve a choice when it comes to television viewing, and Dish’s Auto Hop feature is all about choice. Viewers have been skipping commercials since the advent of the remote control. We are simply making it easier.”

That may not satisfy network executives.

“It seems a strange thing to do,” said Peter Rice, chairman of entertainment for the Fox Networks Group.

Rice, speaking with reporters on a conference call Monday to announce Fox’s fall schedule, noted that broadcast networks such as Fox are the largest content providers to pay-TV distributors such as Dish, and wondered why they’d risk alienating that relationship. As for whether the network will consider legal action to try to derail Dish’s new commercial-zapping offering, Rice said Fox is “still evaluating it.”

This is not the first time such a technology has been launched. Several years ago, a service called ReplayTV did virtually the same thing and the broadcast networks sued and won on copyright infringement grounds.