Sling TV Offers Simple, TV-Lite Solution
Sling TV is a commendable first attempt by Dish Network at offering a real solution for Internet-delivered live pay-TV programming without the need to lock into a pricey, monolithic, cable, satellite or telco-TV subscription package.
The slimmed-down selection covers a lot of popular live basic cable channels to supplement the viewing appetites of Web surfers used to getting most of their video from services like YouTube and Netflix. It’s also a great solution for those who travel a lot and find themselves watching lots of video on their laptops, tablets and smartphones.
More on the Sling TV service, and how it operates after the jump:
For a $20 a month fee, requiring no contracts or credit checks, subscribers get a basic “Best of Live TV” tier of cable/satellite/telco channels including: ESPN, ESPN 2, WatchESPN, Travel Channel, CNN, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Galavision, El Rey Network, Maker, Disney Channel, Food Network, TBS, TNT, ABC Family, HGTV, AMC, IFC, and soon A&E, History Channel, H2 and Lifetime. Also included is access to a selection of on-demand movies and programming recently cleared for home rentals.
If the basic tier isn’t enough, Sling TV offers an assortment of $5 per month add-on packs including:
- “Kids Extra” with: Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV.
- “Sports Extra” with: SEC Network, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Bases Loaded, Univision Deportes, Universal Sports and beIN Sports.
- “Lifestyle Extra” (newly reconfigured) with truTV, Cooking Channel, DIY, WE tv, and FYI and LMN coming soon. The addition of truTV expanded the number of channels carrying March Madness NCAA basketball games.
- “World News Extra” (newly reconfigured) with Bloomberg TV, HLN, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, News 18 and Russia Today.
- “Hollywood Extra” with EPIX, EPIX 2, EPIX 3, EPIX Drive In, and Sundance TV.
The two newly reconfigured add-on packs replace Sling TV’s original “News & Info Extra” pack that previously offered Cooking Channel, DIY, Bloomberg TV and HLN. Subscribers to the original “News & Info Extra” pack receive “Lifestyle Extra” and “World News Extra” for a total of $5 per month.
Sling TV also provides a pretty standard selection of pay-per-view on-demand movies with recent box office titles available on many other streaming movie services. Pricing runs for between $3-$4 for SD and $5-$6 for HD resolution.
Sling TV has demonstrated that what you see today is just the beginning. The service continues to evolve and expand the core channel offering as new carriage agreements are reached. It can be expected to develop further as competitive live over-the-top streaming services like PlayStation Vue and whatever Apple has up its sleeve arrive on the national market. So what we have today isn’t necessarily what this service will ultimately becoming in years ahead.
How to Get It
All that’s required to get Sling TV is a broadband Internet connection, Wi-Fi network and a compatible media adapter or device currently including: Roku (the version 3 player, sticks and TVs), Amazon Fire TV (console and Stick), the Xbox One gaming console, Android and iOS devices and Mac and PC computers.
In the case of most adapters and smart devices, Sling TV is accessed through a free app.
Users can sign up for a limited trial or subscribe month-to-month using an active credit card. No service commitments are required, unless a new user opts for a special deal providing a free compatible media adapter at sign up. There’s no need for any additional contractual commitments, equipment leases etc. that tend to encumber traditional pay-TV services and bloat the monthly bill.
Picture and Sound Quality
Sling TV works anywhere in the U.S. today, but is dependent on a stable broadband Internet connection. Picture and sound quality over a typical 24 Mbps broadband connection is almost identical to the same content delivered over satellite, for the most part.
Most, but not all channels are streamed in HD quality. A number of the world news channels are offered in SD quality. Additionally, the resolution quality of HD channels will fluctuate with bandwidth changes, although streaming at home is usually always in stable HD when a good broadband connection is in use. In comparing channels side-by-side with the same channels transmitted over satellite, there are some synchronization delays, with some Sling TV channels lagging a couple of minutes behind live time (or at least satellite time). A few minor hiccups were also noticed as program freeze-ups for a few seconds, typically at the start of a commercial or end of a program, but this could be, in part, attributable to broadband traffic issues at peak periods, and not dissimilar to short stalls common to satellite and cable TV services from time to time.
Using an app on a Roku 3 device, the program interface was simple, intuitive and responsive. Channel icon selections are listed in a linear horizontal line across the screen with a line of windows showing program thumbnails running underneath each selected icon. A highlighted channel icon in the center of the screen brings up a line of thumbnails displaying the current show flanked by icons for shows coming up to the right and previously aired shows available for VOD replay up to three days (where available) to the right.
The main screen is called up on the Roku remote by hitting the asterisk button. Channels are advanced back and forth with the arrow buttons and programs are selected by hitting the “OK” button. The replay key enables toggling back and forth between two channels.
The Local Programming Rub
Sling TV’s $20 core channel lineup offers the lowest cost of entry to live multi-channel TV service, so far. But even with the add-on channel packs, the service is sorely lacking any broadcast network TV channels, which tend to carry some of the most-viewed content. In addition, channels offered by the service to date are, in part, geared toward sports enthusiasts, but without broadcast channels or local sports networks, sports fans won’t have access to what they want most – daily or weekly live games played by local professional (and college) sports teams. What good is watching programming that talks about the games that you weren’t able to watch?
Through the omission, Sling TV expects viewers to seek out alternatives, such as adding antennas to receive free over-the-air broadcasts, but this is only an option for those living within unobstructed range of broadcast signals (a lot of us don’t). It also leaves out games carried by regional sports networks, which you will have to find on a standard multi-channel pay-TV service. (The new rival PlayStation Vue will carry some local networks and some regional sports networks — in mid and high-end tiers, but not all. We still don’t know what Apple has planned.)
Some options are available for tuning in live broadcast channels over the Internet (such as CBS All Access), but regulations including the Supreme Court’s Aereo TV ruling have made this a more difficult (and expensive) path.
Another option would be to subscribe to a separate season-pass streaming service from one of the professional sports leagues, like MLB or the NFL/DirecTV, but these tend to be expensive by themselves and adding on all of these additional a la carte fees bloats the total bill for TV content.
Adding on multiple free and pay services for various content options also gets into the need for a clunky method of tuning between different apps, different devices and different TV inputs, without one centralized programming guide to bring it all together.
So, despite the concentration of ESPN and other sports channels, Sling TV will leave a lot of sports fans frustrated.
Other popular channel omissions include, Bravo, Fox News, Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, SyFy and USA Network (among others) and premium channels, including HBO, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Sling TV does include a variety of EPIX movie channels, but these are mostly older library releases. You won’t get HBO GO without a cable/satellite/telco TV service subscription, or the newer HBO NOW separate $14.99 per month paid offering unless you get an Apple TV device (which does not carry the Sling TV service).
The Target Audience
Based on the channels offered and the channels omitted, Sling TV seems to be positioned for people who don’t watch or care about watching a lot of traditional TV. Sling TV has said a key focus in developing the service was on Millennials, who are attracted to gathering free or cheap programming options from the Internet and who are comfortably receiving broadcast TV for free over the air. Presumably, this group is used to watching TV more on PCs and tablets than on larger screen TVs. They likely also have better things to do than watch a ton of cable television programming (which in addition to being expensive, is turning into a succession of infomercials at various times of the day and evening).
Millennials who sign up for the Sling TV lineup are expected to pay $20 a month and up to supplement that with over-the-air TV and YouTube, Hulu and Netflix streaming.
Others we can see having interest in Sling TV would be those recently unemployed and on fixed incomes (including many Boomers entering retirement). Whether or not they will be satisfied with the limited channel offering today remains to be seen. Certainly, older audiences will have less patience for searching out, setting up and tuning in multiple disparate broadband streaming services.
Some, but not all channels allow some degree of limited pausing, rewinding and fast forwarding of live programming, as a cable or satellite subscriber would find on a DVR set-top box. But this does not include recording and archiving programming for long periods. To use fast forwarding, the program must be paused for a while and then rewound back to the beginning, before rapid-advancing over commercials and other sequences.
Channels that allow such capability include: Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, El Rey Network, Maker, Galavision, Universal Sports, Univision Deportes, beIN Sports, EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Cooking Channel, DIY, Bloomberg TV, Baby TV, Duck TV, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, News 18, and Russia Today.
Like VOD services on traditional pay-TV services, access to past programs, going back one week in some cases, is possible on EPIX channels, Universal Sports, beIN Sports, Bloomberg TV, Baby TV, Duck TV, and world news channels.
The brains behind Dish Network, which developed Sling TV, deserve applause for looking forward and providing solutions to evolving trends. It’s certainly impressive that Dish would encourage a TV-lite experience like Sling TV that provides an alternative to its own satellite TV service.
Perhaps Dish is looking out for its own survival. After all, with increasing frequency pockets of the population are opting out of cable, satellite and telco TV platforms due to high pricing and growing irrelevancy of programming against trending video programs on YouTube.
Whether or not live OTT services like Sling TV will eventually displace what we have today remains to be seen. This is only a very early implementation, and clearly these services will be refined as user preferences are identified. But in this age of an open Internet with apps-delivered content, it’s easy to imagine a rapidly approaching era where packages of channels from TV service providers are no longer necessary. Instead, content producers will be able to take their shows directly to consumers who will pay on demand or via subscription for only the channels or shows they want to watch. Whether an affordable pricing model for that is possible is waiting for another forward-thinking company to figure out.
As for value today, Sling TV delivers a scaled-down channel assortment for a very reasonable price, including some currently popular channels. But, without live broadcast networks, or premium channel essentials like HBO or Showtime, it seems unlikely many users would be fully satisfied with this, Netflix and YouTube, alone. At a minimum, the ability to also get over-the-air broadcast TV reception is must.
By Greg Tarr
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