Are we one step closer to an a la carte television future? Yesterday, Dish announced a new service, “Sling TV,” that purports to be a home entertainment gamechanger. The service, slated to launch “soon,” will cost $20 a month. You can stream it over the web; it is TV for which you no longer need a TV. Sling will come with ten channels on top of its crown jewel, ESPN, including the Food Network and CNN. But basically, people are excited about this because of sports.
Okay, not so fast.
Never forget: Dish is a cable company. Something, someday, will probably kill cable. But cable will not kill cable. Cable would very much like cable to survive.
Let’s get some bias out of the way: no one likes dealing with a cable company. You are stuck paying for hundreds of channels you never watch in order to access the handful of channels you want; the best way to save money is, anachronistically, to order some triple-play package that comes with a landline. All this, and that five-hour installation window? Thirty years ago, all of this would sound like amazing sci-fi. But we people of the present are spoiled and we know better. We know this is a racket.
Guides on how to cut the cable cord abound, and the cord-free among us have been stuck patching together a good-enough-for-some package: Mom and Dad’s HBOGo password, a Netflix subscription, an Apple TV. These cuts come with the obvious sacrifices: no watching things live, for one, and the biggie: no sports. ESPN had long been the last tether connecting many a cable-user to the old model.
In an interview with the New York Times, Dish’s chief executive Joseph Clayton described Sling as “the launch of a whole new industry here. We are innovators. We are disrupters. We don’t always make people happy because we challenge the status quo.”
You may be asking yourself: Is this something a real human person said, or is this just a bot programmed to spit out trendy business jargon? We may never know. What we do know is, for all this happy-techie-talk of taking a wrecking ball to the old paradigm, there’s no way Dish really wants to demolish the existing model. Sling was not designed to dominate but to supplement. It is not built to “kill” cable; it is built to tap cable on the shoulder and be like, “Hey, could I sit with you at lunch today? I promise to wear pink on Wednesdays.”
Sling is cheap, fine, but its limitations are many. With Sling, you can’t get any broadcast networks or local broadcast stations. You can’t watch on more than one device simultaneously; if anyone in your house wants to watch something on TV, you are all watching that something on TV. As anyone who has ever cohabitated knows, often the beauty of television is that you can be separated from the people with whom you live. With Sling, this is impossible.
There are two premium tiers of networks, five bucks a pop, that Sling users can add to the basic offerings: one is “News & Info Extra” (HLN, Cooking Channel, Bloomberg TV, and DIY) and the other is “Kids Extra” (Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV). But as Variety points out, “most cable nets aren’t available through the service at any price. That includes HBO and Showtime, as well as AMC, home of The Walking Dead, one of the highest-rated shows on TV. I could go on — there’s no way to get Fox News, Discovery, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon or regional sports networks through Sling TV today (or maybe ever).”
With Sling, there’s also no DVR. There’s a “catch-up” feature, on-demand (no word yet on if it will include those commercials you can’t fast forward) that remain available for 3–7 days after the airdate. So much for binge watching.
And these are just the flaws of Sling in a best case scenario. Like public transit or a first date, “live streaming online” is a fantastic concept as long as everything goes perfectly. But how often does that happen? What if your router is acting up, or your internet (which you’ll still have to obtain, separate from Sling) is spotty, or the streaming quality is poor? Nothing takes the drama out of that touchdown like a frozen screen.
Sling’s target audience is 18-to-35-year-olds. But Sling isn’t just aimed at a hyper-specific group of people; it’s aimed at a hyper-specific time of life, when you’re to be too young to afford (or feel like splurging on) a big cable package but still young enough that you don’t mind mooching off your friends, parents, and/or nearby bars for whatever channels they get that you don’t. Sling is for the rare members of this MTV-raised generation to not want that much TV, because if you want to watch even a medium amount of TV, Sling is probably not going to cut it — at least, not forever. Ideally for Sling, you’ll join young — $20 a month is better than nothing, which is what they’re getting from many millennials now — and eventually outgrow it, graduating to a full cable package by adulthood.
At $20 a month, Sling is not positioning itself as your one-stop-shop for all the shows you need but as part of a package you’ll have to assemble yourself. It’s TV, IKEA-style. So there is likely a small group of people who have already quit cable who will be game to add this relatively small expense to their existing pieced-together television package, and another small group of people who have only kept cable because of ESPN, and now are liberated to walk away. And there’s certainly the sense of Sling as one of the flock of canaries in the end-of-cable coal mine, along with Netflix, the new standalone HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, NBA League Pass and the like for sports fans, and a good old-fashioned antennae.
But there still big, powerful forces aligned against some brave, new, smorgasbord future, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox chief among them. On the programmer side, everyone stands to make more money from the old model, wherein consumers are charged for a battery of networks, regardless of how many networks they ultimately watch. None of the major players mind Sling now, as it presumably isn’t siphoning off a ton of users from their lucrative base of people who like Two and a Half Men (or, in the interest of fairness, The Good Wife). Just two months ago, Buzzfeed interviewed a bunch of television executives about “the future of the bundle,” and, surprise! “Everyone tried really hard to reassert the value of a traditional pay-TV subscription and the merits of a bundle of networks.” Disney CEO Bob Iger — so ostensibly a person who supports the concept behind Sling, as Disney is one of the offerings — insisted that the subscription model is “a much greater value than a do-it-yourself portfolio of standalone options… it’s still clearly the dominant entertainment or television package in the home, and we think that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.”
As Peter Kafka at Re/Code reported, “The four programmers Dish has signed on for this package — Disney, Turner, Scripps and A&E; — are all full-fledged members of the TV Industrial Complex… Wouldn’t the success of Sling TV threaten their existing business? Dish, for its part, insists that it plans to sign up ‘millions’ of people for the new service. But sources say sources say ESPN has a clause that gives it the ability to get out of Sling TV if the service signs up a certain number of subscribers, precisely for that reason; I’m assuming the other programmers have one as well.”
If programmers plan to bail as soon as Sling takes off, success would actually mean failure. So fair to say, everyone on board with Sling wants Sling to be good but not too good, successful but not so successful. The kind of thing you might use while developing brand loyalty to Dish or Disney or what have you, so that once you get married or get that promotion or move into a nicer apartment, you’ll decide it’s time to spring for the thing you’ve been missing this whole time: a standard, expensive cable package.