Diary Of A Cord Cutter In 2015 (Part 8: Hands-On With Sling TV)

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There are two potential audiences for Sling TV, Dish Network’s relatively new internet TV service aimed at cord cutters: those who have wanted to ditch their cable or satellite TV subscription, but couldn’t imagine living without ESPN or its flagship show, SportsCenter, and then everyone else who has contemplated cord cutting in general. For the first group, I’d say fine – do it – $20 per month for Sling TV combined with Hulu and Netflix could still undercut your pricey cable TV bill. For the latter group, however, I’d advise a more cautious approach for the time being.

As part of my cord cutting journey, which I’ve been documenting through a series of posts on TechCrunch, I’ve been testing Sling TV’s internet TV service. For over a month, I’ve used Sling TV on my desktop, mobile devices and my Roku. The service actually runs on a variety of platforms: Mac, PC, iOS, Android and number of streaming media players, including also the Amazon Fire TV, Nexus Player, and Xbox One.

Sling Guide

Line-Up

At its core, Sling TV is a tentative step in the right direction. It represents an unbundling of the too big, and too expensive, cable TV packages that have been forced on consumers for years. Instead, you can get a smaller package of some of cable’s better channels for an affordable price, and then pick and choose others you want to layer on top.

Sling TV offers a basic package of cable TV channels for $20 per month, including ESPN/ESPN2, AMC, A&E, TNT, Food Network, History, Travel, TBS, HGTV, Disney, CNN, Bloomberg, Lifetime, Cartoon Network, and more. You can then optionally subscribe to various channel “packs” for an additional $5 per month to add more sports channels, kids channels, movie channels, or Spanish-language channels to your Sling TV subscription.

You can also add HBO for another $15 per month, which makes it one of the few places you can subscribe to HBO without a traditional cable to satellite TV package.

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Sling’s service, though only live to the public since February, has already grown to 250,000 subscribers, according to some reports. And while previously it had been said that Sling’s “skinny” bundle would be capped at 2 million subscribers, Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch says there’s nothing preventing Sling from continuing to grow its business.

“There is no programming partner that I meet with – and I meet with all our programming partners – that have expressed any interest other than ‘how can you grow my business?’…The world is moving on to new technologies like this, and they’re embracing it,” he claims.

No Broadcast Networks

But Sling TV’s service doesn’t offer everything you can get via cable. For news junkies, for example, know that MSNBC and Fox News are missing, though you’ll get CNN, HLN, and Bloomberg. There are also no broadcast networks included with Sling TV.

In other words, you cannot use Sling TV to fully replace your cable TV subscription. If you still want to watch the “big” networks, like ABC, CBS, or NBC, for instance, you’ll either need to get a digital antenna to capture TV signals over-the-air for free, and/or buy a subscription to another service like Hulu for expanded access to network programming.

Live Streams With Expanding On-Demand Content

Today, there are a handful things that are frustrating about Sling TV’s implementation, which run in counter to the broader trends around cord cutting, as well as time-shifted and on-demand TV viewing.

For starters, Sling TV for now is largely a “live” TV service. That is, it’s mainly offering an internet-powered TV experience where you flip through channels to see what’s currently airing, instead of being a place where you can search, discover and watch full seasons and back catalogs. In most cases, that means you’re watching shows in real-time.

Like many DVRs, you can pause, skip backward or forward (if you’re not caught up to where the show is live) on some programs, but not all, due to rights issues. You can’t skip the commercials, like some DVRs allow for (including Dish’s own with AutoHop), and you can’t record favorite programs to watch later, like most pay TV subscribers can today with their DVRs.

And I’m not sure what’s worse – having to watch commercials, or having to sit through messages that the program will be “right back,” which occur today when watching ESPN.

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Some of these problems are being addressed now, or should get better in time. For example, the odd commercial break messages are the beginnings of a new way of selling advertising. Instead of national TV ads, Sling is testing dynamically inserted ads that are demographically and regionally targeted, explains Lynch. The company is trialing this first with ESPN, but the end goal would be to roll this out to all channels in the future.

“This is the holy grail for our channel partners and advertisers,” Lynch notes. Meanwhile, he says, for consumers, TV ads will become more personalized and more relevant as this becomes the new standard.

And as for the live TV-driven nature of Sling’s experience, that should also improve in the future. The problem today is that streaming rights are a complicated landscape. Some networks, like Scripps (whose channels like HGTV and Food Network come with Sling), produce their own content and give Sling a broad set of rights, while other channels license content from another company, and these programs may have different rules around things like video-on-demand (VOD) offerings.

However, as those licensing deals come up for renewal, they’re being adjusted to include broader expanded viewing windows and better VOD rights as companies adapt to the streaming TV age. And as those deals are amended, the expanded rights will trickle down to Sling TV.

Catch-Up Programming Options Are Inconsistent

For now, however, these varying rights lead to inconsistencies in terms of what’s available.

Sling TV today does offer some previously aired programs for on-demand viewing. But you’re never certain which programs you can stream on-demand, or how many prior episodes will be available.

For example, SportsCenter is only available when live, which may not be a huge deal given its news-like nature, but a search for HGTV’s “House Hunters” returns 6 episodes for on-demand viewing, Disney Channel’s “Jessie” spits back 7 episodes, History’s “Ancient Aliens” returns 3 episodes (from 3 different seasons!), and so on. Other shows then surprise you with a full season. You get the idea.

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The networks themselves are sometimes to blame for this problem. Disney told us, for instance, that its Disney Channel audience isn’t as interested in “catch-up” viewing, so it only features some recent episodes for Disney Channel shows. But its ABC Family audience is more interested in the catch-up feature, so it offers a five-week window for replay. (But this wasn’t universally true, I found. While ABC Family’s show “Pretty Little Liars” returned 5 episodes as expected, other shows brought back more or fewer. E.g., “Young & Hungry” returned just 3. “Freak Out,” 6. Both have over a half-dozen episodes under their belt, however!)

Navigation

Despite its emphasis on live streams, Sling TV’s apps don’t offer a simple TV guide to see what’s airing now. Instead, available programming is grouped in a sidebar menu under categories like “Sports,” “Entertainment,” “Lifestyle,” “Family,” “News,” and “HBO/Premium.”

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When you click on one of those categories, you’re taken to a screen where instead you click through channel logos with program details beneath them, and then click on “Watch Now” if you want to start viewing a show. Effectively, it’s like flipping through channels with a TV remote, but with a lot more steps involved.

I suppose it’s not hard to figure out, exactly, but it’s not well-designed.

That, too, may change in time. The company has brought on Digitalsmiths (acquired by TiVo) co-founder and CEO Ben Weinberger as Chief Product Officer, and he’s tasked with improving the user experience on Sling TV, including making content discovery easier as the catalog grows.

Technical Issues

During testing, I ran into other problems as well. Sling TV’s search service errored out for no apparent reason at times (see below), which was frustrating because it’s the best way to reach the back catalog. Other times, it failed to find a show that you know you saw available in the guide earlier as being available on Sling TV.

In other words, if you’re used to the simplicity in navigation and search that’s provided by services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video or, in some cases, Hulu (though it often suffers from similar issues) – where you find a show and then can binge your way through a whole season – Sling TV is not for you.

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The TV streams themselves played okay – I never ran into trouble where they weren’t available, though Sling has struggled with this in the past. But they sometimes didn’t appear to be of high quality – on the Mac app, the video was blurrier than it should be, but they were better on my iPhone’s smaller screen.

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There’s another huge issue with Sling TV I’ve yet to address – you can only watch it on one device at a time. So basically, forget about letting the kids stream Disney in their playroom while you enjoy SportsCenter in the living room. It doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, Sling TV competes with cable subscriptions where you can pay extra to hook up boxes in separate rooms, as well as with streaming services like Netflix which let you stream to multiple screens – even up to 4 on Netflix’s family plan.

A one-stream limitation in a multiscreen world is, well, crazy.

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Benefits

Complaints aside, there are some benefits to Sling TV, starting with the price. Plus, because it straddles the on-demand streaming video world and that of pay TV, you are able to use your Sling account to log into some TV apps that typically require authentication via a pay TV service. For instance, you can log into apps like WatchESPN (online and on native mobile), as well as apps like WATCH Disney, WATCH Disney Jr. and WATCH Disney XD (soon).

(I should note that I ran into errors with WatchESPN on the web, but this could be due to my test account, and they later were resolved.)

Another benefit is that Sling TV offers movie rentals from its service. The movies range from $2.99-$4.99 in price which makes it competitive with competitors. But as with Amazon Video, you can’t rent movies directly from your iOS device – you have to first rent them from another platform before you can watch them on your iPhone.

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The biggest benefit of all, of course, is that you can get ESPN for the first time ever over the internet, and on your many devices.

Despite all its flaws, for sports addicts looking to cut the cord and save money, Sling TV should not be outright dismissed.

For $20 per month you could have ESPN and ESPN2 via the core package, plus more channels (ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded, BeIN Sports, SEC Network, Univision TDN, and Universal Sports) through the $5/month “Sports Extra” package; and the ability to use the WatchESPN app. And you can watch on all kinds of devices, from TVs to phones.

That’s not an awful deal for live sports fans.

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Still, the overall experience of using Sling needs improvement – from the user interface design to the VOD catalog to the feature set and beyond. Sling TV’s software and service may get better. Right now, it’s usable, if not delightful.

More importantly, though, when you tally the numbers, you might find you’re able to pay less for a Sling TV subscription – even when combined with other streaming services of your choosing to round out your cord cutting line-up –  compared with what you’re paying today for your cable or satellite service. (Most consumers’ cable bills are in the $85-90 range, on average.)

Whether the bottom line is more important to you than the feature set and functionality, however, is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Email me your cord-cutting story: sarahp@techcrunch.com

 

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