First Take: Sling TV Doesn’t Feel Like TV

Mari Silbey —  January 27, 2015

Sling TV from Dish with ESPN on iPad

Many, many other writers have reviewed Sling TV (the new online video service from Dish that was announced at CES), so I won’t belabor the points they’ve already covered. There are licensing issues. Not all features are available on every channel. It’d be nice to have more on-demand television content instead of mainly VOD movies.

But, on the other hand, ESPN is pretty great (plus Disney, HGTV, etc.). And any-screen access for live TV is a plus.

What struck me about Sling TV, however, is how much it doesn’t feel like TV. It feels like Netflix.

There’s occasional buffering. Sometimes there are visual artifacts on screen, or the sound cuts out. It’s hard to channel surf. Changing channels takes time, which means you don’t do a lot of scrolling up and down the line-up. And you never just turn on the TV. You – noticeably – load up a video stream.

Still, you know you’re only paying a fraction of the normal cable bill, and maybe that makes up for a lot.

Netflix changed our expectations. Internet video isn’t perfect, but for a cheaper price and some bonus features like multiscreen access, it’s often good enough. Most likely Sling TV won’t succeed or fail because of how seamless the experience is. It will live or die based on whether or not people are willing to pay $20 a month for the content it offers.

Sling TV isn’t for me. I like Justified on FX, and VoD for all the episodes of The Good Wife I forget to record. I’m fully wedded to the overpriced cable bundle.

Is it for other people? That we’ll just have to wait and see.

Related Posts

32 responses to First Take: Sling TV Doesn’t Feel Like TV

  1. Supposedly the general populace will start receiving Sling TV invites and access today…

    (Like Mari, it’s not for me either. Not yet anyway.)

  2. Is it a solid 1.0 product though? Does it have potential?

  3. This is something that would interest me if I was traveling a lot, but I’m not right now. We’ll have to see what mobile data costs in the next few years for this to be really useful.

  4. “Sling TV isn’t for me.”

    You’re not a broke millennial?

  5. Varun- Yes, solid 1.0 product. From a content perspective, I’d like to see more free VoD content given the price tag, but I’m willing to forgive the technical bugs.

    Chucky- I am now and forever 29.

  6. “Chucky- I am now and forever 29.”

    Wow. A full decade younger than Jack Benny.

    My repetitive point on Sling TV is that it’s specifically designed to be unappealing to anyone but broke millennials. Want to supplement your Netflix and/or Hulu with sports while still being able to afford ramen noodles? It’s on fleek. But to avoid cannibalization, it’s designed to be unappealing to anyone else…

    (Until I sussed that out, I thought Disney and Time-Warner had lost their collective minds.)

  7. I would only consider this service if it gave VOD access to the shows or if I could DVR it.
    The current iteration makes about as much sense as a dial tone on your cell phone.

  8. Most of the tech media is missing the point. SlingTV (and Netflix, Hulu+, iTunes, etc) aren’t competing with cable at all. Cable TV is already dead for the younger generations. They’re competing with piracy.

    Netflix understands this; when they spoke about their most threatening competition being the Popcorn Time piracy app in their latest shareholder letter. Most content owners and nearly all media do not.

    The music industry learned this lesson from Napster. The iTunes store and services like Spotify were the result. Nobody I know pirates music these days, because the legit alternatives are attractive. That’s a HUGE win for them! Movies and TV content owners need to learn that same lesson, or they will bleed for it.

    The only real market for SlingTV in its current form is cordcutters who want live ESPN. Nobody else cares about live TV. Hopefully version 2.0 will better compete with piracy, as Netflix does.

  9. I recently signed up for a Fios deal with no ESPN, figuring I can walk to the bar when my out-of-market NFL team is on MNF. I’ll probably use Sling TV instead if I’m feeling antisocial or beered-out, especially if I can pick a month with 3 other interesting MNF games. So for me it’ll be like PPV NFL (probably not a good precedent).

  10. yep, I read this article and kept thinking – all this was said about MP3 and online music. No one wants the lossy compression… who has the bandwidth to support downloading music – it has streaming issues… etc…
    and music streaming still does — unless you are OCD it is hard to flip through a bunch of ALBUMS and play an ALBUM anymore — but despite all that – it lives

    and for my kids that are in college – they can start a SLING TV subscription and then never care about moving around and switching TV service again, or beating on the roommates for cable bill, etc – so not just broke millenials but folks that are not rooted yet.
    I now see a new symbol of becoming settled down – you have a cable or sat subscription :)

  11. oh – and started your own Netflix subscription instead of using Dad’s.

  12. “Most of the tech media is missing the point. SlingTV … [isn’t] competing with cable at all … They’re competing with piracy.”

    Huh. Funny how the vast bulk of their subscribers are going to be there for the lone valuable piece of content that isn’t vulnerable to piracy: live sports…

  13. “yep, I read this article and kept thinking – all this was said about MP3 and online music. No one wants the lossy compression… who has the bandwidth to support downloading music – it has streaming issues… etc…
    and music streaming still does — unless you are OCD it is hard to flip through a bunch of ALBUMS and play an ALBUM anymore — but despite all that – it lives”

    Look, I’m sure there were lots and lots of profoundly stupid people in the world saying lots and lots of profoundly stupid things.

    But I remember the discussions in the mid to late ’90’s reasonably well, and pretty much everyone understood that some kind of computer-based music was going be a massively big deal.

    —–

    Also, Sling TV is intentionally designed to be cripple-ware for pretty sensible reasons. And if, despite its limitations, it’s popular among folks for whom it wasn’t meant to be popular, it will be either killed or further crippled.

  14. Actually you can pirate live TV too, there are Kodi plugins to do that, but the whole thing is /seriously/ sketchy. And perhaps more importantly, it’s unreliable. When you have your buddies over to watch the latest Lakers game or whatever, relying on a stream from some random internet site that goes up and down like a yoyo isn’t going to cut it.

    Live TV is one case where piracy actually delivers an inferior experience.

  15. Is sharing a cable provider password so others (non-household members) can use the Watch ESPN app/channel not piracy? It is in my eyes, but I’m no pirate…

  16. “Is sharing a cable provider password so others (non-household members) can use the Watch ESPN app/channel not piracy?”

    Sure. But that’s a weird kind of piracy in that it’s controlled by and allowed by the content companies, for various reasons, at least for the time being.

    And, it limits the number of ‘pirates’ on a paying account.

    And Sling TV’s live sports coverage is greater than Watch ESPN’s…

  17. In support of Chucky and Rodalpho’s conclusion, here is exactly what their press outreach says:

    “Sling TV is designed to serve a very specific market; one whose entertainment needs have not been met by the industry. We are not trying to replicate or replace the traditional pay-TV model. Rather, we aim to reach cord-cutters and cord-nevers (often including millennials) with the live TV they have been missing.”

  18. “We are not trying to replicate or replace the traditional pay-TV model. Rather, we aim to reach … cord-nevers (often including millennials)”

    Prego is bae!

    On one hand, I’m pleased to see the way the video content companies have responded to tech. On the other hand, it’s just damn Common Sense, plus they were able to learn from the Great Lesson Of The Music Meltdown.

    (Full disclosure: I’m always on the side of the content companies, cuz that’s where the artists live and cash their checks. With the exception of the execrable ‘mickey mouse’ copyright extensions, of course; I’m not crazy.)

    I mean, seriously, the story of how a small tech company in Cupertino was able to drink the entire milkshake of the entire music industry and how productive lessons were learned by others should be taught in every business school in the land.

    I vividly remember the first time I launched the Apple CD Audio player software all the way back in 1994, popped in a CD, and found I could rip a track to the hard drive. I excitedly chatted with the person who who was showing it off to me in the media lab.

    My 1st thought was: Holy sh*t! How is this possible? It’s unprotected! I can’t believe this! Holy sh*t!

    My 2nd thought was: I understand Moore’s Law. I understand how digital reproduction differs from recording to cassette. This is going to eventually take over the world and drink the music content companies’ milkshake.

    My 3rd thought was: Never mind. The music content companies can’t be so stupid that they’ll allow this to happen. They’ll have to kill the CD format for a protected replacement, temporarily putting their massive cash cow in suspended animation. It’s going to be really painful for them for a couple of years before they get back up to speed.

    Obviously, I was incorrect about 3rd thought. I thought the music content companies would take a short-term hit in order to preserve their very livelihoods long-term. But no…

    Video learned the lessons of the music star.

  19. After flipping thru Mari’s review account this AM, I wonder if they have the market right but the content wrong…

    https://twitter.com/davezatz/status/560391183898513408

  20. “After flipping thru Mari’s review account this AM, I wonder if they have the market right but the content wrong…”

    Wait. Zima isn’t bae?

  21. Chucky, yeah my first CD player was a Mac and browsing, copying tracks as discreet files was indeed mind blowing. Probably the same year/era as you, since it looks like I unloaded it in 2005: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/dc.forsale/fsoKLczkvB0

  22. But copying tracks back then meant filling a hard drive with one album’s songs, since there was no MP3 or other software to compress CD tracks to a reasonable size.

  23. “But copying tracks back then meant filling a hard drive with one album’s songs, since there was no MP3 or other software to compress CD tracks to a reasonable size.”

    Well, pedantically speaking, MP3 was finalized and published in 1993.

    But as to your actual point, of course. And it wasn’t merely the lack of MP3 that made 1994 not “the future”. The high cost of hard drive storage was a much more important factor at that particular moment.

    However, as stated, I understood Moore’s Law, which meant that hard drives were going to rapidly make such things possible. And while I’m not sure whether or not I was aware of MP3 at the time, I was certainly aware of JPG, GIF, and digital video codecs, and thus understood that the same techniques would very soon be applied to music.

    So, yes, I understood in 1994 that what was coming wasn’t here yet. But it wasn’t too long until I had my ultra-nifty Neo Jukebox with it’s removable 2.5″ hard drive with a 20GB and then 40GB drive was sitting in place of my CD player. I can’t find the date of its release with a quick Google search, but I think it was somewhere around 1997 or 1998. So I didn’t have to wait too long after 1994. And even before the Neo came out, I was already playing some MP3 album rips directly from my computer through my stereo.

    (Happily, understanding Moore’s Law, I was smart enough to rip at a VBR between 192 and 256 for future-proofing. So, 18 years later, I’m still listening to those rips. And good god, the reaction that Neo got! Friends and acquaintances would stream into my apartment like locusts to play with the thing. I even bought a nice Quark 3rd party thumbnail grid utility to create and print out a color booklet of cover art of all available albums for both me and my guests to browse. Hell, I even toyed with the idea of creating a PDF of the Quark doc that would let you click on cover art, and have it trigger play of that album, but it seemed like far too much work…)

  24. Chucky, I know you’re hip and with it, but more than one “bae” per thread? Really?

  25. “Chucky, I know you’re hip and with it, but more than one “bae” per thread? Really?”

    Just textbook millennial outreach, y’know. And good god, man, you missed the on fleek. Take stock of your comment critique ability, kind sir.

  26. “Chucky, I know you’re hip and with it, but more than one “bae” per thread? Really?”

    Also, don’t forget, the Dick Nixon solution is available for use…

  27. Whose said you have to be a millennial to be broke? One of the real attractions of this type of service is for the time challenged works more than 40 hours a week person. You want a little of cable type of service because you’re busy/not home/at work/have obligations.
    As far as some of the tech problems with live streaming go ask people who have used MLB or NHL streaming, we’ve been there. Sling TV will evolve, we’ll see where.

  28. “Whose said you have to be a millennial to be broke?”

    Not me! Stats show that the entire middle class has been shrinking since around 1980, with an acceleration of the shrinkage in 2000, and another acceleration after the Great Crisis of 2008.

    But stats also show that since the Great Crisis of 2008, millennials have been massively and disproportionately hit. There is an entire economic lost generation coming of age.

    (And there’s lots of stuff to back up the idea that Sling TV is aimed primarily at millennials, both from their statements, as well as from their content choices. For one example, the expensive sports component is weighted towards the NBA, which is the single most popular sport among youth, but is not among the general population.)

    “As far as some of the tech problems with live streaming go ask people who have used MLB or NHL streaming, we’ve been there. Sling TV will evolve, we’ll see where.”

    Here’s where i differ with you. The MLB and NHL difficulties are technical hurdles to be solved. But I’m of the strong opinion that the QoS issues with Sling TV are entirely intentional. That’s the whole tradeoff the content companies are offering: lousy QoS in exchange for less money.

    So, yes, Sling TV will evolve. But I have very strong doubts it will evolve in the direction of better QoS…

  29. “Like Netflix”? But there are commercials, right? And you can’t skip them? How is that like Netflix?

  30. Does “like Hulu” sit better?

  31. I am very excited about all these Over The Top services coming to fruition. Now I have the difficult decision of which one to go with. Being a cord cutter and cheap as hell is a tough place to be. I have cut back on my sports obsession which is easy, being that it isn’t football season anymore. But come the Fall, I’ll have some tough choices to make.

    BTW: I love the collection of cynically humorous commenters you have here.

  32. “There’s occasional buffering. Sometimes there are visual artifacts on screen, or the sound cuts out. It’s hard to channel surf. Changing channels takes time, which means you don’t do a lot of scrolling up and down the line-up”

    Clearly you’re not a Time Warner Cable subscriber. I am and I have all these things happen to my cable TV. :)

    I just got my Sling TV invite but I think I’ll wait for it to hit the Xbox One. My invite comes with a 7 day trial but rumor is Xbox Live Gold members with an Xbone will get a full month free.