Viacom ( VIA.B) and EchoStar ( DISH) buried the hatchet Thursday, reaching a long-term programming deal that will return CBS to the Dish satellite network just in time for the NCAA college basketball tournament. But problems persist for EchoStar, which said it would probably delay filing its 2003 financial results because of an accounting issue raised by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The programming agreement ends an acrimonious dispute between the television content and delivery giants, one in which EchoStar portrayed its media partner as a monopolist trying to force a portfolio of unpopular networks onto its satellite network while collecting exorbitant fees. Under the multiyear deal, Dish has resumed carrying 16 CBS affiliates it dropped Monday, as well as cable channels like MTV, Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon. "It's great to have our networks back in front of all our viewers," said Mel Karmazin, Viacom's president, who also apologized to viewers who lost access to CBS for three days. The sentiment was echoed by EchoStar CEO Charles Ergen. "We understand that this has been a difficult few days for our customers, and we thank them for all the encouragement they have given us throughout. We also look forward to a long relationship with Viacom in which we can provide their quality channels to our viewers."
Meanwhile, EchoStar released fourth-quarter subscriber figures, but said investors would have to wait to see its year-end earnings while it irons out the accounting problem with the SEC. The earnings release had been scheduled for Thursday. According to SEC staffers, EchoStar overaccrued by about $26 million for the replacement of satellite smart cards, the technology in its satellite receivers that ensure only paying customers get the service. The cards often become obsolete because of piracy. The SEC determined EchoStar's own accruals were appropriate but said it shouldn't have accrued a liability for smart cards in receivers it leased to customers. Reversing the reserve put up in 2001 would require a restatement, EchoStar said, noting its 2001 results were audited by Arthur Andersen, the firm that went out of business in the wake of the Enron scandal. "Reversal of the accrual would not affect previously reported free cash flow, but would increase earnings for those years, thus improving EchoStar's previously reported pre-tax losses on a dollar for dollar basis," the company said. The company said it might seek a 15-day extension of its filing deadline. In the meantime, it said the Dish Network added about 340,000 net new subscribers during the fourth quarter of 2003, and had 9.425 million subscribers as of Dec. 31, 2003, an increase of 1.245 million subscribers over Dec. 31, 2002.