If Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen is eager to stay out of the spotlight, Joe Clayton has never shied away the stage.
At the biggest (and loudest) geek-fest of the year — the International CES in Las Vegas — Clayton is infamous for holding court with a live kangaroo in hand or entering the stage banging a drum, then delivering consumer-focused product points peppered with lovable kitsch.
But Clayton’s influence on products and technology at Dish ran far deeper than his role as a silver-tongued showman.
Before Clayton’s arrival, Dish’s product team was relatively small and operated under the company’s marketing umbrella. To give that key team more breathing room and autonomy, one of his first moves was to create a separate product group, led by Vivek Khemka, now Dish’s senior vice president of product management.
“Joe was pretty passionate about product” and its relationship with the marketing operation, said Khemka, an executive who Clayton would affectionately refer to as Dish’s “Mr. Wizard.”
“He basically put us in charge not just of the technology, but having us think more broadly around the consumer, the pricing, the overall consumer experience,” Khemka said. “Joe was always thinking about the consumer. He brought a different line of thinking.”
Clayton’s influence on that process was felt at each the next four CES confabs, where it’s a major challenge just to rise above the noise. Among its CES kudos during the Clayton years, Dish yielded Best of Show honors in 2013 (for the controversial Hopper with Sling HD-DVR) and 2015 (for Sling TV), and came away with Best Video Product in 2014 for the Virtual Joey.
Dish was well down the road to development on the original Hopper when Clayton joined the company in 2011, but without his insistence that Dish come up with a catchy, consumer-friendly brand for it, Dish still might be saddled with the default go-to-market name given to it at that point: the “XIP813,” which was to be the follow-up to the equally archaic-sounding “VIP922,” Dish’s original Sling-loaded DVR.
“The first thing Joe brought to the picture was [a focus] on consumer branding and the consumer messaging of the product,” Khemka said. “He said, ‘Look, if you really want to be in the consumer technology space, if you want to be innovating, it’s not just about the engineering. It’s about the product, the features, and the messaging.’ ”
Although Dish had been a regular at CES for years, Clayton’s role with new products and how they should be marketed and explained helped Dish “to break through the noise and the clutter with some good messaging and branding and a halo from CES that has been instrumental to the Hopper brand,” Khemka said.
With Clayton at the helm, Dish also wasn’t afraid to step into controversy, as it did in 2012 with the introduction of AutoHop, an ad-skipping feature for the Hopper that drew the ire of broadcasters.
But he also played a role in urging the company to think differently in other areas, including its initial run at 4K video. Instead of building a 4K app that was limited to specific Ultra HD TV models, Dish opted to develop a separate 4K-capable “Joey” box that will launch this summer and work with any 4K-ready set.
“Joe brought a lot of perspective” to Dish’s 4K strategy, Khemka said, noting that he had already had experience with other video transitions, whether it involved the move to color TV or high-definition television. “With 4K, it again came down to providing consumers with affordable options, choice and control. Though no one knows when [4K] will take off completely, we didn’t want to get caught unprepared.”
Despite Clayton’s retirement, Khemka believes that the lessons learned from him will endure.
“He was a mentor to not just me but to many other people,” Khemka said. “He left a very strong team here so we can continue to innovate and lead in the product space.”
Dishing Out the Technology
Some of dish’s bigger product launches during Joe Clayton’s run:
Jan. 9, 2012: At CES, Clayton unveils Dish’s next-generation whole-home HD-DVR platform, the Hopper and Joey. The 2-terabyte Hopper can record up to six shows at once, and take advantage of PrimeTime Anytime, a feature that lets viewers record all the primetime programming from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC with one click.
May 10, 2012: Drawing fire from the nation’s biggest broadcasters, Dish launches AutoHop, a Hopper component that lets viewers skips commercials in TV shows captured by PrimeTime Anytime the day after they are recorded to the DVR. The feature becomes the centerpiece of subsequent lawsuits filed by broadcasters and a factor in future retransmission negotiations.
Jan. 7, 2013: Dish launches a new version of the Hopper that bakes in video place-shifting technology from corporate cousin Sling Media as well as AutoHop. The addition enables users of the device to watch live and recorded TV on mobile devices via the Internet. At the show, the Sling-loaded Hopper also becomes a magnet for controversy due to AutoHop-focused litigation between Dish and CBS.
Jan. 6, 2014: Dish super-sizes its whole-home HD-DVR platform with the introduction of the Super Joey, which lets subscribers record up to eight shows at once when paired with the Hopper HD-DVR — as long as four of them are on the major broadcast channels. That comes soon after Dish announces the “Virtual Joey,” an app for newer model LG-made TVs and PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 consoles that delivers the Hopper experience without the need for a separate set-top box.
Dec. 17, 2014: Dish becomes the first major U.S. pay TV operator to integrate the Netflix app on the set-top box — in this case, Dish’s second-gen Hopper HD-DVRs.
Jan 5: At CES, Dish unveils Sling TV, an over-the-top pay TV service for cord-cutters, establishing the first so-called “virtual” MVPD. Dish also debuts the 4K Ultra HD Joey (pictured).
— Jeff Baumgartner