Sling TV Starts to Open Up

Inching towards its commercial debut later this month, Sling TV, the new over-the-top pay-TV service from Dish Network tailored for millennials, opened its floodgates last Tuesday (Jan. 27), allowing a group of pre-registered users to start streaming away.

Sling TV, a service that starts at $20 per month, also received a batch of reviews that generally gave the technology platform high marks, but were critical of its initial programming lineup and its lack of features, such as digital video recorder functionality (see product review).

When it’s launched, Sling TV will offer consumers two options: to sign up for a one-week free trial, or take a “device bundle” that the company will detail soon.

In addition to the core 12-channel lineup (ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Chan nel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family and CNN), Sling TV will also offer a mix of over-the-top video, including some exclusives, from Maker Studios.


Sling TV will also pitch two add-on packs that will sell for $5 each per month: Kids Extra (Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV); and News & Info Extra (HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV). More programming options are in development, including “Sports Extra,” which will feature more ESPN channels and access to the sports giant’s authenticated WatchESPN app, and a bigger video-on-demand library.

Some analysts questioned if Sling TV would make a significant dent in the market, from a subscriber perspective, but said it might have a broader impact on how pay TV services would be packaged and sold in the future.

“No, we don’t think Dish’s new service will take the world by storm … but we do think this product will find a niche and that its pricing will be genuinely disruptive,” Craig Moffett, partner and senior analyst at Mof fettNathanson Research, wrote last month after details of the service were revealed at International CES. “Consumers now have the ability to craft their own bundle that might, just might, be ‘good enough.’ ”

Colin Dixon, founder and chief analyst of nScreen- Media, is less bullish, arguing that Dish’s initial lineup “missed the mark,” and that the presence of ESPN and ESPN2 won’t be enough to push young cord-cutters or cable-nevers off the fence.

“I don’t think millennials will gravitate towards it,” Dixon said, noting that the absence of MTV represents just one of several gaps.

On that note, he pointed to a 2014 study from Barna Group that listed the top five shows among millennials — The Big Bang Theory (CBS), The Walking Dead (AMC), American Horror Story (FX), NCIS (CBS) and Game of Thrones (HBO). None of those channels are part of Sling TV’s first lineup.


He said he also believes the lack of a true DVR will be a turnoff to the market Sling TV is targeting. While offering some TV shows on-demand for up to three days after they air is helpful, a seven-day window would make it a “more attractive proposition,” Dixon said.

Sling TV, he said, is “a good platform to build on,” but he wondered if the new service could cannibalize the current pay TV base, despite its aim of not doing so, adding, “I think there’s a distinct risk that that could happen.”

Dish, meanwhile, declined to say how many people will be afforded access before the Sling TV service launches commercially later this month. But there are hints that a sizable group is willing to give it a taste.

Roger Lynch, CEO of Sling TV, told Broadcasting & Cable that “hundreds of thousands” of users have already pre-registered, and that fewer than 0.05% of them are existing Dish customers, countering fears that the OTT offering might erode the satellite-TV provider’s subscriber base. But time will tell how many consumers stick with the service once the free trial is over.

Tech Is Slick, but Content Will Need to Evolve

I had an opportunity to test drive Sling TV ahead of the invites that Dish issued last week, and found that there’s a lot to like and plenty of potential for the service, though its variety of programming packages will need to evolve and expand to ensure they appeal to the varied consumer segments that make up the growing crowd of cord-cutters and cord-nevers.

During my short time with Sling TV, I found the technology underpinning it to be solid and reliable, backed up by a slick user interface that is easy to learn and navigate.

One area in its favor is its Netflix-simple sign-on process. I just plugged in my user name and password, and I was streaming live TV channels moments later. No truck rolls or calls to customer support — a great feature for a bring-your-own-device service (for my review, I ran Sling TV on both a Roku 3 and an iPad Air).

The video streams ran nearly flawlessly off a home WiFi network, easily filling the screen with vivid HD images on the iPad and on a 60-inch Samsung 1080p HDTV via the Roku. Generally, it took two to three seconds to switch channels — not perfect, but not annoying, either.

On LTE, it sometimes took longer for streams to build, to switch channels and for visual elements of the UI to populate on-screen. On occasion, when the service had to buffer due to a lack of LTE bandwidth, the screen would go black and post a message telling me it was “catching up.”

Sling TV’s video-on-demand offering is a work in progress, and would not cause me to drop Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, or steer me away from sources like VUDU or M-GO. But I did enjoy a feature that let me filter the VOD library by parental ratings, HD programming and Rotten Tomatoes rankings.

While Dish’s initial version of Sling TV has lots of potential, the service comes with some limitations that extend beyond its relatively tidy live-TV lineup.

There’s no uniform support for trick-play functions or the ability to start a show currently airing from the beginning. While users can pause live programming and restart shows from Duck TV, Baby TV and those from the Scripps Networks stable, I couldn’t do the same on channels like ESPN and Disney Channel. While those limitations are due to Dish’s distribution rights for Sling TV, it’s something that subscribers will need to contend with.

I’m accustomed to using a DVR, so not having one would be a deal-breaker for me. If Dish’s distribution rights allow it, Sling TV would do well to launch a cloud DVR option posthaste.

Overall, Sling TV is an admirable first step toward a service that could make sense for cord-cutters who can live with access to just one stream and don’t mind taking on the role of a self-aggregator and filling the gaps with complementary OTT and over-the-air offerings.