The ongoing dispute between AMC and Dish Network took a confusing turn this week when Dish chairman Charlie Ergen invited another party into the fold: rural America.
In an earnings call Wednesday, Ergen lambasted the supposed popularity of AMC, which features hit TV shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, especially among "rural" demographics. Dish's 14.1 million subscribers have not had access to AMC's various networks since July 1, when the contract between the two companies expired. AMC believes the spat was caused by its $2.5 billion breach-of-contract suit against Dish, while Ergen charged that it relates to AMC's high rates and irrelevance to rural customers. Whatever the true cause, Ergen's comments could come across as insulting to many of the company's own subscribers.
"Our customers are not looking at zombies in New York City," Ergen said, referring to AMC's The Walking Dead (which actually has been set in Atlanta and more rural parts of Georgia, then on a ... farm). "They live in farms and ranches ... We have data, real data from our customers. And for whatever reason, our customers don't watch some of those critically acclaimed channels at the level that we read about in the paper, perhaps because we skew a bit rural or whatever."
Ergen, who also boasted during the call that he's "got a house in rural America," added, "I've had satellite television for as long as satellite television has been around, and there's never been one minute that I know of that anybody in my family or anybody who's came to my house has ever watched one second of any of those channels."
In an apparent reference to AMC's recent stunt in New York City—part of its viral marketing campaign against Dish—Ergen said of the farmers and ranchers, "They have no clue about zombies in New York City marching around saying, 'Where is my AMC?'"
The implication—that rural subscribers are somehow disconnected or disinterested in "critically acclaimed channels" like AMC or shows like The Walking Dead—is difficult to understand. Not long after the earnings call, Business Insider blared the headline, "Dish CEO says customers don't care about AMC because they live on 'farms and ranches.'" Multiple requests to Dish for clarification of Ergen's comments were not immediately returned.
Still, however Ergen's comments might be misinterpreted, there's no question his generalizations regarding rural customers not giving a hoot about AMC or Mad Men could be perceived as antagonistic. It's hard to fathom why the network's Emmy-winning roster of shows, some recently boasting record ratings like The Walking Dead's 9-million-viewer finale, would somehow be unpopular on rural farms and ranches. "People here watch all the same shows that everybody else does. One of my guys I think is really into Mad Men and my wife watches it sometimes; I just don't have time to watch much TV," says one ranch manager in southeast Colorado who asked not to be identified. "You know, I've got a whole crew of guys all over this ranch that have bachelor's or master's degrees in philosophy, biology, or history. Yet someone will show up here and think we're all a bunch of ignorant idiots. If we don't watch those shows, it's probably cause we're too smart to or because we ignore popular culture."
Another farm worker in Missouri was equally as miffed by the implications of the Dish chair's comments. "We are not far out in the sticks," said the farm worker, who does not watch TV. "But we still get lots of, 'Oh, they must wear overalls and straw in their hats.'"
The Colorado farm rancher wasn't too phased by the comments though. "We're so used to it that it doesn't bug us," he says.
One industry source involved with the matter says there's no significant difference between the interests of urban and rural demographics when it comes to shows like Mad Men. "There is limited distinction," the source says.
And despite whatever Ergen may have meant by his comments, the source disputes whether the battle between Dish and AMC is even over the latter's alleged unpopularity in rural markets.
"Some of [Dish]'s most deeply penetrated areas are markets like Los Angeles and New York," the source says. "The implication that all of their customers live on ranches or farms or whatever I think is misguided."