The first thing you notice about Sling TV: This was built for ESPN.
The channel was heavily-promoted when Sling’s parent company Dish Network announced the $20-a-month service in early January at the Consumer Electronics Show. ESPN also took center stage on nearly all of Sling’s promotional literature and the supplemental website Sling.com. And ESPN automatically starts streaming the very first time you log in to the service.
The hype can be easily explained: This is the very first time the cable sports channel has been offered to subscribers outside of a traditional cable or satellite pay TV package. For years, the conventional thought was that ESPN — whose parent company Disney charges cable and satellite companies around $5 per subscriber to carry — would keep companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV in business. Any attempt to disrupt pay TV by moving cable channels to an Internet service would be fruitless without the sports giant.
So that’s what Dish did. Last year when the satellite company entered into negotiations to extend Disney’s contract for Dish, it also made sure whatever agreement was reached extended to the then-forthcoming Sling. After several weeks of negotiations, a deal was reached. Earlier this month, we learned the deal included bringing the Disney family of channels to Sling — including the Disney Channel, ABC Family and ESPN. It made similar agreements with Turner Broadcasting (CNN, HLN, TBS, TNT), Scripps Network (HGTV, Cooking Channel, Food Network, DIY) and Bloomberg Television.
Dish is the first pay TV company to make progress on a stand-alone streaming TV service. But is it worth your $20?
How We Got Here (Click to skip to the review)
For almost four decades, the pay television model has gone undisrupted, finding itself on the benefitting end of technological advancements. In the 1980s, encrypted broadcasting allowed some premium TV networks like the fledging HBO to scramble their signals so that only people who rented a de-scrambling box or card for around $13 could receive the channel. The technology allowed HBO and others to begin bankrolling premium content — first sports, then miniseries and later original programming — as well as allowing people to rent blockbuster movies on-demand (“pay-per-view”).
Digital broadcasting further helped pay television by offering the ability for cable and satellite operators to squeeze more channels into a limited amount of bandwidth through compression. The technique allowed programmers like Disney and Viacom to spin off their legacy networks into smaller, niched channels. The extra digital space allowed for channels like NickToons and Disney Junior — stations that are mostly automated, air re-runs of old shows in the Disney and Nickelodeon libraries respectively, and offer additional streams of ad revenue for the programmers.
The achilles heel of television programmers is that they’re often eager to take advantage of progress in broadcasting, but usually lag behind in advancements on other platforms. That’s actually a common problem with most companies — advancements on other platforms are usually ignored until someone steps up to the plate to prove that it can be done.
For streaming video, that “someone” was YouTube. Before 2006, the best way to watch a video file from the Internet was to download it — those files were usually Windows media files of poor quality. Worse, there was no easy way for the average Internet user to upload and share their own videos. YouTube change this by offering everyday web surfers a space to share their web videos — with family and friends, or with anyone and everyone on the Internet if they wanted. After 2006, the only video worth watching was on YouTube. Eventually, people also began using the platform to upload and watch pirated TV shows.
Netflix was one of the first legal streaming platforms to offer TV shows and movies. When Netflix launched the streaming service in 2007, its library was full of B-movies, old cartoons and sitcoms from the 1980s and 1990s. Now separate from its legacy disc-by-mail service, Netflix’s streaming library offers more-recent TV shows and films as well as award-winning original programming. Just eight years after launch, Netflix has 33.4 million streaming customers in the United States (Comcast, the largest pay TV company, has 22.4 million cable customers).
To access Netflix, paying customers only need a broadband Internet connection and a “supported device.” Thanks to Netflix’s platform-agnostic strategy, almost every smart TV, tablet, gaming console and mobile phone can connect to Netflix through the web — either from a browser or, in many cases, from a standalone Netflix app.
About five years ago, programmers started to take notice of Netflix, YouTube and similar services. Executives began to realize two trends: That TV and movie viewers were starting to watch more content on their phones and computers, and because of this many were ditching their expensive cable and satellite subscriptions. Why pay nearly $200 for 800 channels with nothing on when you can pay $7.99 a month for Netflix or — thanks to pirates — watch most shows on YouTube for free?
“TV Everywhere” was supposed to solve this problem. Executives saw the TV Everywhere strategy as a way to cater to consumers who wanted to watch programming on their devices while at the same time preserving the cozy revenue-generating relationship between the pay TV companies and the networks. Websites and apps were soon re-tooled to allow people to watch on-demand programming and, in some cases, live network streams — but only if they had a cable or satellite subscription.
TV Everywhere’s efforts did little to stop the cord-cutting trend. Netflix and similar services offered by Hulu and Amazon continued to grow. Cable and satellite companies continued to lose out. That trend continues today.
Behind the Times: Why TV Has Stayed on TV in America
The ugly truth is the United States is severely lagging behind other countries when it comes to a live, online-based television service.
TV customers in other parts of the world — mostly in Europe, Asia and Australia — have been watching live TV on their computers and phones for years. In Japan and South Korea, phones have come bundled with antennas and tuners capable of picking up digital TV signals for much of the past decade. In Europe, cable and satellite companies have been offering streams of popular pay TV channels over the Internet for about as long. In the United Kingdom, several pay TV companies, including British SKY Broadcasting (BSkyB), have been offering standalone Internet TV subscriptions for around the past five years. Since 2006, the Swedish service Zattoo has offered live streaming TV from German, French and British broadcasters for free.
For just as long, the only solution to watch TV online in the United States has been through surreptitious — and sometimes, illegal — means. American TV viewers could access any of the above services using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) like TunnelBear and OverPlay, but those solutions are less than ideal because they involve connecting to a remote computer based overseas, which can significantly slow down an Internet connection.
Some companies have attempted to break into the streaming TV market, only to find themselves shut down by courts due to rights and retransmission issues. The Seattle-based startup ivi TV was shut down in 2011 after a federal judge ruled the service was violating the copyright of programmers by streaming over-the-air signals of several Seattle and New York stations. Last year, a similar service called Aereo closed after the Supreme Court ruled against it in another copyright case.
Other companies, such as FilmOn and TVU Networks, have provided platforms for people to watch TV channels that, in some cases, were streamed illegally by signal pirates. TVU Networks abandoned its streaming TV platform when it began marketing its technology to legacy broadcasters two years ago. FilmOn continues to broadcast today, although less than half a dozen of its current streaming channels are also broadcast on regular TV.
Sling TV: The First Separate, Legal Approach to Live Network Programming
It was inevitable that someone would enter the standalone streaming television space. But with Netflix and Amazon’s domination in the on-demand market, coupled with the failures of startups like ivi and Aereo, just who that “someone” daring enough to try was something of a mystery.
Until recently, that is, Rumors of Dish’s interest in a standalone streaming product had been swirling since at least 2012 when the company launched “DishWorld,” a streaming TV service catering to foreign-language speakers in the United States. DishWorld is largely considered to be Dish’s “experiment” with streaming TV: Things like the equipment needed to broadcast out, the equipment needed to receive the channels, how much a programmer was willing to charge for the rights to distribute online and how much a customer was willing to pay to watch the channels on their computer or tablet was up for consideration.
With exactly zero companies venturing into the streaming media territory, Dish knew it had to get each and every aspect of DishWorld correctly figured out if it wanted to build out a separate service to successfully disrupt cable and satellite. Streaming customers might be forgiving if a Russian channel buffered once every hour, but they would not be if the same happened to ESPN.
Three years later, Dish feels confident it’s figured things out. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, Dish unveiled Sling TV, its standalone streaming TV service featuring less than two dozen channels already found on cable and satellite.
The service offers nearly two dozen channels from four programmers — Disney, Turner, Scripps and Bloomberg. The first two companies agreed to a retransmission deal during negotiations for Dish’s existing satellite TV service Dish Network; the other two companies reached agreements separately with Dish over Sling. The agreements means Sling TV is the first legal streaming television service in the United States available to consumers without a cable TV or satellite subscription. It also means Sling TV’s entry price of $20 per month will probably go up as more channels are added over time.
Sling TV: The Channels
At launch, Sling really tries to offer a little something for everyone. The channels are broken down into four categories: Sports, Entertainment, Family and News. Arguably, ESPN, Disney and CNN are the standout channels from the bunch. The rest — TBS, TNT and Food Network among them — are the kind of channels you’re likely to skip over while channel-surfing on regular cable or satellite, unless you’re really into “Friends” and “Law and Order” repeats, or you’re a foodie.
Sling offers two separate packages providing more channels at a premium. The “News and Information Extra” package adds HLN, Bloomberg, Cooking Channel and DIY, while the “Kids Extra” package adds Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV and two other Disney channels. Each premium package is $5 a month extra, or $10 a month extra for both.
The only breakout channel offered by Sling so far is ESPN, and it is likely why the network is heavily promoted by the service. Considering how much Disney charges cable and satellite companies for the channel ($5 a month per subscriber for most systems), it also likely explains why Sling TV starts at $20. An option to remove ESPN from Sling would likely bring down the cost of the service, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, there’s a high chance customers would also have to part with the other Disney-programmed channels — leaving only the Cartoon Network for kids.
If you’re a sports (or SportsCenter) enthusiast, the ability to watch ESPN without a cable or satellite subscription could be worth it. But for households that already subscribe to Netflix, Hulu and/or Amazon, signing up for Sling TV just to watch ESPN or the two dozen other channels might be more of an expense than its worth. A combined Netflix-Hulu-Amazon subscription breaks down to around $25 a month. Tack on Sling TV at another $20, and you’re looking at a per-month bill comparable to what Comcast and Time Warner charge for basic cable (before the HD/DVR box rental fee).
And consider that expense comes without some of cable’s other top-billing channels: If you want your MTV, you’ll have to stick with cable or satellite. The same is true for Comedy Central, FOX News, FOX Sports 1, NBC Sports, Bravo, VH1 and TV Land, all of which are absent from Sling TV. Carriage agreements will need to be reached with those programmers — including NBC Universal (Comcast), 21st Century FOX and MTV Networks (Viacom) — before those channels are added. And once they are, it’s likely the cost of Sling TV will go up, or at the very leas that they will be relegated to packages that will cost customers more to access — the way traditional cable and satellite already is today.
Sling TV: The Service
Before it launched, Dish had to think long and hard about how it was going to deliver superior picture and audio quality comparable to existing cable and satellite services while at the same time keeping bandwidth and costs low. Dish seems to have accomplished all of this with Sling TV — although it’s unclear what compression format is used for audio and video, both stream clearly and smoothly with little interruption.
For our test, The Desk noticed that ads normally inserted by Dish for channels and services offered by Dish Network were also visible on Sling TV streams, indicating the feeds used for the satellite service are the same for the streaming service. The exception was ESPN, which showed a “we’ll be right back” message during commercials. The expectation is that what you’d get on cable or satellite, you’ll also get on Sling.
That was true for most of the channels. Two, however, proved to be problematic during The Desk’s test — the Cooking Channel and Boomerang. Both suffered from an unusual glitch where the audio and video would not synch up after about five minutes of viewing. The glitch was bad enough to render both channels completely unwatchable — a major disappointment considering both the Cooking Channel and Boomerang are premium add-ons. The audio volume on the Cooking Channel was also considerably lower than that of other channels.
Sling TV: The Apps
At CES, Dish said Sling would be as platform agnostic as possible, with the service promised for iOS, Android, Roku, Amazon Fire, Google Nexus, gaming consoles and through Internet browsers. But at launch, Sling was available only through standalone apps on four platforms — iOS (iPhone, iPad), Android, Roku and Mac OS X. The apps are only downloadable via a welcome e-mail sent to customers when they sign up for the service (as of this writing, the sign-up process is by invitation only).
The apps all basically look and work the same: Sling has a grid of available channels (with ESPN being the first) coupled with an electronic program guide that shows both current and upcoming programs for a channel. These features are accessed through a single menu which, on the Mac app, can be easily triggered by moving the mouse. While this is intended to be a helpful feature, it can cause some annoyance since the menu takes up nearly half the viewing window — more if you’re not watching in full-screen.
Some channels also have a limited, DVR-like pause and replay feature. ESPN is not one of the channels, which is a shame since a pause and replay feature would likely be in great demand. Unlike a traditional DVR, there’s no way to record a current program or a future program for later viewing, although some channels will let you start a program over from the beginning (again, this feature is absent on ESPN).
Unlike cable, satellite and services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, there’s no on-demand library on Sling TV. You won’t be able to “catch up” on shows mid-season or re-watch the latest episode of a show you might have missed. Basically, watching Sling TV is like watching television in the 1980 — before VCRs made taping a show possible, DVRs made recording a whole season doable and on-demand services made appointment viewing almost entirely obsolete.
The Verdict: Is Sling TV Worth Your $20?
The answer is: probably not. At least not yet.
For $20, Sling TV offers nearly two dozen channels filled with programming that can easily be found on other less-costly, more-versatile platforms. Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon have dozens of cartoons and education titles that appeal to kids (Netflix has SpongeBob; Sling does not). CNN, once the most-trusted name in news, is now the least-watch news channel on cable or satellite — and there are plenty of free streaming alternatives offered from CBS, ABC, Sky News and RT to satiate the information diet of news junkies. Bloomberg, which Sling TV charges an extra $5 to watch, makes its channel available online for free.
The only draw for Sling TV is ESPN, and Dish knows it. But consider almost every bar, gym, hotel and TV-enabled airplane has access to ESPN, and it soon becomes apparent that Sling’s portability of the channel is, for most, a redundant expense. For others — especially cord-cutters — a $20 charge for a service with only two desirable sports channels runs counter to their strategy of lowering TV subscription costs.
For years, American TV viewers have wanted an alternative to the high costs of cable and satellite, and the Internet has long been considered a logical place for such a service. Dish’s Sling TV is a noble, good start toward something that has the potential to be very disruptive, and that’s incredibly exciting. Over time, if Dish manages to increase its program offerings and expand onto other platforms while at the same time keeping subscription and operating costs low, Sling TV will be a killer must-have. Right now, it isn’t there.
Want to take Sling TV for a test-drive? Sign up for an invitation here. Currently, Dish is offering a seven-day free trial for all new Sling TV customers.
Disclosure: This article contains special hyperlinks to affiliate programs that help generate revenue for The Desk. Such hyperlinks are not intended to constitute an endorsement, sponsorship or warranty of any good or service.