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Sling TV's Near-Death Experience

The Web TV service looked like it was in lousy shape this morning. Turns out it's okay, after all.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Sling TV, the Web TV service that delivers a couple dozen pay TV channels including ESPN, is still growing.

Up until today, that sentence wouldn’t have qualified as news. But for several hours today it looked like Sling might be in trouble, after parent company Dish Network released quarterly numbers that convinced at least one high-profile analyst that the service was struggling to add new subscribers, just a few months after launching.

“Growth for Sling TV has already hit a wall,” MoffettNathanson’s Craig Moffett wrote after looking at Dish’s numbers and estimating that the company had added just 24,000 new Sling TV subscribers in Q3 and that many of its earlier subscribers had already bailed on the service.

But following a conference call in which Dish executives said Sling’s results were “in line with expectations” — without providing specific numbers — Moffett redid his math. His new conclusion: Sling added 155,000 new subscribers in Q3 and now has at least 394,000 people paying at least $20 a month for the service.

For comparison: Industry sources say Hulu’s paid subscription service, which offers reruns of current TV shows, has around 10 million subscribers, while Netflix has at least 42 million U.S. subscribers. Both services start at $8 a month.

At its current subscription levels, Sling is on track to generate around $100 million in annual revenue for Dish and its TV programming partners, which isn’t going to upend the industry. But if it can continue to grow, it will bolster industry thinking that there is an appetite for “skinny bundles” — TV packages that offer only a fraction of the networks that come with traditional TV services.

That’s what Apple was hoping to launch earlier this year alongside its new Apple TV box, and that’s what several other services are contemplating. The theory is that the bundles will appeal to millennials who haven’t started paying for TV subscription services yet, and/or help the pay TV business hang on to subscribers who would otherwise cut the cord and stop paying for TV at all. For now, at least, the theory is still in play.

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