NBCi 'virtual channel' launched

Satellite broadcaster DirecTV boosted its subscriber rolls by a greater-than-expected 13% in 2001, with nearly a third of that growth coming in just the last three months.

News came as the satcaster announced that subscribers now have access to an interactive version of NBC that gives them links to breaking news on demand and a commerce option with business products.

Going by the name NBCi — for some time the name of the Peacock’s Internet initiatives — the “virtual channel” is located on channel 488 to subscribers who have a set-top box manufactured by Wink.

DirecTV, owned by General Motors unit Hughes Electronics, said it added roughly 1.35 million customers, bringing its grand total to 10.7 million. The company had forecast growth of 1.2 million to 1.3 million for the year. In the fourth quarter, more than 400,000 new subscribers signed on to the service.

The news lifted the satcaster’s fortunes somewhat on Wall Street: Hughes’ shares ended the day up 2%, but parent GM ebbed by 1.7%. The company plans to announce its fourth-quarter and full-year 2001 earnings reports next Tuesday.

More formidable

The increase will also mean a more formidable combined subscriber base for the proposed merger of Hughes and its smaller rival EchoStar — if the plan survives scrutiny from regulators in the Justice Dept. and the FCC.

Deal, announced last October, was originally worth $26 billion, but has since swelled in value to more than $30 billion, tracking an increase in the value of both stocks. DirecTV and EchoStar combined would boast more than 17 million subscribers.

DirecTV credited the growth rates to an increased focus on customer service, including the addition of local channels in 41 new markets.

More local channels

Separately, the company said Tuesday it will launch local channels in 10 more areas in 2002, including Las Vegas, Hartford and Providence.

Those efforts, said operating chief Roxanne Austin, reduced turnover of its consumer base — long a nemesis of subscription-based services, for which new customer-acquisition costs are a major contributor to overhead.

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