Sling TV: Over the Top and Cutting the Cord

by Morgan Staggers on July 6, 2016 in Dish Network,OTT Service Provider

Perhaps you’ve heard how cable TV subscribership in the U.S. is on a downward glide. Why? Viewers are “cutting the cable” in favor of content streamed over the Internet rather than paying exorbitant prices for channel tiers (which invariably include seldom watched channels) forced upon them by multiple service operators (MSOs), i.e., “the cable company.” Considering that most of the United States is held captive by a limited number of service providers – typically the local telco, the local MSO and/or satellite networks – tech savvy consumers are turning to on-demand streaming services available from the internet.

Which brings us to Sling TV. Currently available only in the United States, the live streaming pay TV service owned by Dish Network claims 600,000 subscribers (as of February 2016) after less than two years of operation. Sling TV provides so-called “over the top” (OTT) media over the Internet, free from the auspices of an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a MSO such as Comcast. While an ISP/MSO may be cognizant of the content (data) transmitted from an OTT provider to a destination computing device, it cannot control any form of redistribution or be held responsible for its transmission. The ISP/MSO role is that of merely the pipeline, transmitting IP packets to the destination receiver.

The Revolution Is Being Televised

Sling TV and other OTTs are combating multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) – i.e., MSOs and satellite networks – by challenging their long-entrenched business model. MVPDs invariably offer “tier packaging” of cable channel offerings; naturally the most desirable ones cost more and the price keeps going up. Too, MVPDs have long resisted calls for “a la carte” content customized by the individual consumer. A subscriber’s options are limited to a choice of two, three or four tiers of channels. If the customer wants network television furnished by the limited number of providers available in his area, he’s compelled to take what’s offered or else do without.

For example, in 2005 MSOs Time Warner and Comcast announced a “family tier” of channels to counter critics who claimed cable TV was rife with violence, profanity and sex. But as one industry analyst put it, the move was not “a business decision; it (was) ‘a get the regulator off my back’ decision.” Subscribers groused that popular sports programming such as ESPN was unavailable from the “family tier.” Yet the move was praised by the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, a religious broadcasting trade group including televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Why? The Coalition opposed a la carte cable because they feared subscribers would excommunicate networks such as the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).

Enter the OTTs and Sling TV. For a fraction of the cost of programming from a MVPD, a Sling TV subscriber can pick and choose among movies, popular TV shows and live sports. Below is a commercial advertising Sling TV:

I “Stream” of Jeannie

As mentioned earlier, Sling TV streams video channels to your Smartphone, laptop, etc. and plays them through a media player. Note that streamed content is not downloaded and saved for storage in a file for playback. A media player streaming a data file can begin playing before transmission of the file is completed.

While Sling TV can be viewed on hand-held devices such as Androids and iPhones as well as laptops, PCs and tablets, most people also want to view Sling TV on their home TV. Not to worry; Sling TV channels can be watched using an external media player connected to your TV. The following players are currently compatible with Sling TV:

  • All Roku players including the Roku Streaming Stick
  • Amazon Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick
  • Android TV
  • Google Nexus Player
  • XBox One
  • Channel Master
  • Chromecast
  • ZTE
  • Apple TV

Sling TV is not available on PlayStation 3 or 4. (PlayStation has Vue, an OTT service accessible in the United States.)

Speed Matters

To watch Sling TV, you’ll also need sufficient broadband speed to handle the volume of data video uses. Video quality is directly related to streaming speed and one’s connection speed is in constant flux depending upon number of connected devices and download speed provided by the ISP. The capabilities of one’s WiFi modem can also directly impact video and audio quality. For that reason alone it’s a good idea to use an Ethernet cable to connect to the Internet when watching Sling TV. Below is Sling TV’s recommended constant speeds per device:

  • Constant speed of 3.0 Megabits per second or more – Streaming non-HD video content on portable devices such as tablets and phones.
  • Constant speed of 5.0 Megabits per second or more – Single stream of video content on a TV, PC or Mac.
  • Constant speed of 25 Megabits per second or more – Recommended for households who maintain Internet use on multiple devices.

What’s On

As of late June 2016, channels available from Sling TV included HBO, AMC, FX, TNT, A&E and Adult Swim. See here for the complete lineup. Note that most local network channels (i.e., NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS) are not available. CBS offers a similar OTT service called “CBS All Access”; however, NFL games are not streamed over their service and programming is not streamed live. Recently, select local ABC networks were made available as an “add-on” extra for $5 per month. (More about “add-on extras” below.) To augment Sling TV with local network affiliates, many subscribers also use an antenna to pick up programming over the airwaves. This is an idea very much worth considering, particularly if one lives in a densely populated urban area with lots of local channels from which to choose. Remember YMMV; carefully peruse what Sling TV has available and compare to the channels you watch frequently to make sure Sling TV’s programming fits your needs.

How Much?

Sling TV advertises that one can watch “the best of live TV” for only $20 per month. However, if one thinks that this means true a la carte programming, think again. The “Best of Live TV” tier (yes, Sling TV has tiers) includes 27 channels for $20 per month – still a good deal IF the channels in the tier are ones you watch frequently. Instead of tiers, Sling TV has “Add Ons,” most available for $5 per month. Add Ons are:

  • Sports (including the SEC Network, ESPN News/ESPN U and Univision Deportes BUT no regional Fox sports networks)
  • Kids
  • HBO ($15/month)
  • Cinemax ($10/per month)
  • Comedy (including Spike, TruTV, CMT, MTV)
  • Lifestyle (including VH1, WE and BET)
  • Hollywood (including Sundance, Epix and TCM)
  • World News (including HLN and “international perspectives”)
  • Spanish (including Azteca, Cine Latino, ESPN Deportes, Univison and Galavisión)
  • Broadcast (local ABC, Univision and UniMás networks if the subscriber resides in one the eight following metro areas: Chicago, Fresno-Visalia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, San Francisco)

All told, at least 90 channels are available. But as the cost of the add-ons mounts, the total price begins to approach that of conventional MVPDs.

What’s the Catch?

Besides what’s been mentioned above (e.g., very limited local programming and hardware requirements), Sling TV reportedly has the following issues:

  1. Has no DVR capability and is incompatible with TiVo and Tablo.
  2. You can’t watch Sling TV on more than one device at a time unless you create more than one account. This can be a deal killer for households with divergent tastes in programming (think teenagers, kids, sports fans, news junkies, lifestyle aficionados, etc.) Addressing this issue, Sling TV recently rolled out a beta version with multiple streaming and 30 channel “basic” package.
  3. If you use a ISP satellite provider (e.g., HughesNet), you’ll burn through your data cap very quickly. Throttling will occur and the subscriber will discover very quickly that he’s paying way, way more than $20 a month for Sling TV if he keeps buying more bandwidth during the month. Count on 1 gig per hour streaming SD; 3 gig per hour for HD.
  4. You’ll still have the same breaks for commercials and national ads as other TV services. And most channels don’t pause, fast-forward, rewind or skip ads.
  5. Subscribers have reported customer service issues, including shady billing practices and less-than-stellar technical support.
  6. When Sling TV first debuted, CNET reported that picture quality was “not quite” as good as cable but “still very good.” They ranked the picture quality as “softer” compared to Verizon FiOS HD. Periodic quality drops were also cited.

Update

Sling TV now has three “tiers” — that “t” word again — Orange, Blue and a combination of Orange and Blue. For some reason the third tier is not called Grey. (Pricing and tiers current as of 29 August 2016.)

Sling Orange Tier —  25+ Channels for $20 per month

ESPNAMCCNNHGTVTBSGalavisionHistory
DisneyESPN 2TNTEl ReyVicelandFreeformFlama
adult swimIFC NetworkA&EPolaris +LifetimeTravel ChannelCartoon Network
Newsy TVBloomberg TelevisionLocal Now (Weather Channel OTT)Food NetworkComedy ChannelMaker ChannelBBC America

Sling Blue Tier — 40 + Channels for $25 per month

Tru TV TNTTBSGalavisiónUSAAMC
adult swimIFC NetworkA&EEl ReyFlamaFXXFX
Newsy TVBETVicelandNick JrSyfyLifetimeHGTV
Fox Sports 1Fox Sports 2Polaris +UnimásUnivisionBravoCNN
History ChannelComedy ChannelMaker ChannelCartoon NetworkNFL NetworkNBC Sports Network
Fox (Select Markets)NBC (Select Markets)Food NetworkTravel ChannelBloomberg TelevisionBBC America
National GeographicNat Geo WildCSN (Coming Soon)Local Now (Weather Channel OTT)Fox Sports Network (Select Markets)

Sling “Grey” — All 48 Channels above for $40 per month

Note that now local Fox and NBC channels are available in “select markets.” Local ABC and Univision channels in “select markets” remain a $5 per month ‘Add On.’ Also, a new $5 per month ‘Add On’ for those who miss British Commonwealth sports is “World Cricket Extra” featuring the One World Sports Network with cricket, real “football” (soccer), rugby and other athletic endeavors more familiar to North Americans.

Coda

Sling TV shows great promise as a cost-effective alternative to MVPDs and MSOs. However, it’s currently far from a panacea. Consider the other OTTs available, determine your viewing practices and needs and the data speed you have (or can obtain) from your ISP. A combination of OTTs and an OTA antenna tailored to your specific viewing needs may be your best bet if you’re serious about “cutting the cord.”

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