Dish Network's Sling TV service — which allows for streaming of live TV on supported smartphones, tablets, and other devices — seems from the outside like a game changer in terms of breaking cable's stranglehold on how Americans get TV. It launches Tuesday for selected subscribers and will be available to everyone in two weeks. (You can sign up here.)
For just $20 a month, you get a basic core of channels that includes essentially everything people still need live TV for. It includes ESPN, in particular, allowing for viewing of sports, and CNN, for breaking news. And for a little extra, viewers can subscribe to the news and information package, or the kids package, which are just what they sound like. For parents wanting to park their kids in front of something that will keep them quiet for a bit, that will seem tempting.
Plus, the service is sold on its own, so there's no need to have a pricey cable or satellite subscription to enjoy it. Cord cutters of the nation will rejoice.
And yet after spending the weekend playing around with Sling TV, I'm not sure this is so much a revolutionary step for television as it is an evolutionary step. Yes, it's wonderful to be able to pull up the game on your phone while you're waiting in line at the grocery store, and Sling TV has several other cool features.
But Sling TV is caught in a middle ground between the cable model and the online streaming model, able to borrow some good things from both but also hampered by not having the chief advantages of either. It's also not clear how long this particular middle ground will even exist, as TV plunges toward its online future.
Let me just reiterate that being able to watch TV any time, anywhere you have a wired or wireless internet connection, is really cool. And Sling TV more than delivers on this, with a simple but effective interface that makes browsing the various channels a breeze. (This is particularly true on a tablet. On a phone, it can be a little too easy to swipe too far.)
At the price of $20, without having to make a commitment to any other service, this is going to be a major temptation to many who are tired of paying as much as they do for cable or their satellite package. If all you need is a way to watch live sports and news, Sling TV is probably going to be just fine for your needs. You'll miss some major sporting events — like the World Series or Super Bowl — but the vast majority of them are available on broadcast networks, which you can still get using an antenna in most major metropolitan areas. (For instructions on how, go here.)
The selection of channels is a mixed bag. The networks come primarily from Disney-ABC cable (including ESPN, Disney Channel, and ABC Family), Turner Networks (including TNT, TBS, and CNN), and Scripps Networks Interactive (including Food Network, HGTV, and Travel Channel). Still, those channels hit all of the needs of most TV viewers, with everything from events that have to be watched live to channels that show inoffensive reality TV worth spending an afternoon vegging out to.
Sling TV also allows you to start a program over if you join it in progress — or, at least, it does for certain programs (more about that in the next section). This is a terrific idea, which allows for a kind of pseudo-live watching, along with a 30 second skip button for ads. (The service also allows you to jump backward 10 seconds if you want to repeat something.)
Finally, there's a healthy selection of movies in the on-demand rental section of Sling TV, with prices that are competitive with Amazon or iTunes. Sling promises more movies and programs will be added in the near future.
Yeah, the selection of channels allows for something for just about everybody, but it's still lacking a huge number of channels many would consider essential. There's no FX here, for instance, or Comedy Central. MTV is missing, as are pay channels like HBO and Showtime. And Sling TV is unlikely to sign many of these networks up, as they're all working on their own streaming services.
Sling TV, like conventional DVRs, offers buttons to jump backwards and skip commercials. But it lacks the killer feature of the DVR, in that you can't record programs using Sling TV just yet. Without that, you're once again stuck trying to watch things live, which would seem to be the opposite of what cord cutters are looking for.
That wouldn't be a problem if the networks on Sling TV were well-represented on, say, Hulu, but they're often not. That leaves a gap between watching live and waiting for seasons to hit streaming services. Sling doesn't yet have a solution to fill that gap.
The feature that allows you to restart a program in progress seems like it might be a solution to this, but as of yet, it's only available for a handful of programs, which seem to mostly be from the Scripps family of networks. Yes, this is nice if you come in late to a rerun of Cutthroat Kitchen, but it would be much more useful for live sporting events — where it's not available.
Sling TV also struggles to recover from hiccups with connections, often getting frozen for minutes at a time if my internet access cuts out for a couple of seconds. That's particularly not ideal in places with slower data connections for smartphones.
Finally, Sling has some unfortunate bugs and problems. I tested the service on both my Android phone and my iPad, and the experience of trying to rent movies was far easier to use on the former. I could rent a movie directly on the Android by pressing one button. On my iPad, I had to save the movie to a watchlist, then attempt to unlock it from a computer's web browser — except I could never actually get this to work.
Similarly, the app occasionally wouldn't bring up programs I had requested, though this, weirdly, seemed to affect the Disney Channel more than any other network.
These bugs seem likely to be figured out soon enough, but they make the early days of Sling slightly funky to deal with.
So should I get it?
It depends on what you primarily use TV for. If you just need a way to watch news and sports, there are far worse options than Sling TV, coupled with an antenna for broadcast channels.
But if you're primarily interested in watching some of the scripted programming cable offers, then Sling TV isn't going to be the option that allows you to cut your cord entirely, unless you're OK waiting several months to a year for those programs to show up on Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix.
But most of the problems with Sling TV are, so far, problems with contracts. A lot of the missing content is missing because its owners are still wary of licensing it to streaming services. As content providers become more comfortable, Sling TV should be able to expand its library. It's even possible the service will come to function like a DVR that lives in the cloud somewhere along the line.
For now, Sling is mostly interesting for what it represents, not for what it is just yet. It doesn't seem likely this is the service that will make cable television go the way of the dinosaurs, but something like this will probably do that some day. It's just a question of who gets there first, and Sling TV is getting a head start.