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Sling TV's Owner Tells the TV Guys It's Not About Cord-Cutting. It Tells Customers Something Else.

Dish says its new Web-TV service isn't about taking away from traditional pay-TV players, but it's being marketed that way.

Asa Mathat
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.

Is Sling TV for cord-cutters or cord-nevers?

Depends on whom you’re talking to at Sling TV.

The official talking points around Sling — both for Dish Network, the satellite TV company that owns it, and Dish’s programming partners, like ESPN — is that Sling is a Web-TV service targeted at millennials who have never signed up for pay TV. So it can help them work their way up to a traditional pay-TV subscription, or at least give the pay-TV guys a new revenue source.

Here, for instance, is the way Dish CEO Charlie Ergen talked about Sling to analysts in an earnings call yesterday. His argument: Sony’s upcoming TV service, which offers an almost-full lineup of TV channels (ESPN will be notably absent) over the Web, is real competition for pay TV. But Sling won’t be, Ergen says (emphasis added):

I think the more interesting thing will be when Sony launches their product which is in fact, as we understand it, a much more comprehensive [Web-TV] product and really, I think, will be a direct replacement to cable and satellite and phone, video subscriptions. And I think that will be more interesting, because that will actually have an impact on the [pay-TV] market. I think we are interested in incremental business. But I think Sony, because they are not in the — they are not in the current environment … I think they are more apt to be more disruptive.

It’s possible that Ergen believes this. But I don’t. I think that Sling TV could be disruptive, at least on paper: In conjunction with HBO’s upcoming Web service, and other offerings like Netflix, it’s a real opportunity for TV watchers to start constructing a pay-TV package that fits their needs, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all bundle we’re used to.

And that might certainly be incentive for people who are getting a traditional pay-TV package to opt out.

So even if Charlie Ergen doesn’t think he’s selling Sling TV to would-be cord-cutters, the people who market Sling TV get it.

Check out Sling’s sign-up page, which encourages you to “Take back TV.” Hard to take something back unless you had previously had it, right?

Not convinced they’re trying to take business away from the pay-TV guys? Click around to the “why we’re better” page, which says you can “stop suffering through thousands of channels just to find nothing on TV.” More? Okay: It also reminds you that getting Sling means you can “say goodbye to long-term contracts!”

Again: You can’t stop something, or say goodbye, unless you were already doing it, or already there.

I do think Ergen and his TV partners are serious when they say they’re targeting “cord-never” millennials; my hunch is that that’s a larger audience, and probably an easier one to sell.

But pretending that a low-cost, pay-TV alternative won’t appeal to some people who are currently paying a lot for TV doesn’t make sense. Which is why Sling’s marketers aren’t pretending.

Other folks who have an inkling about Sling’s disruptive potential include ESPN, which has made sure that the service the company sells through Sling isn’t quite as good as the one you get on TV: ESPN won’t let viewers pause or rewind its live TV, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you’re watching a game and want to step outside for a beer or a bathroom break. And since there’s no DVR option, Sling users can’t record a game or ESPN show and watch it later.

ESPN and its parent company Disney also have an out clause they can use if Sling gets too popular and they conclude that it is indeed cutting into their core business.

It’s way too early to tell if that’s happening, but it’s certainly on their minds. Even if they don’t want to say so out loud.

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