Review: Sling TV

Technology Is Solid & Reliable, But Content Options Will Need To Evolve
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Sling TV, Dish Network’s new OTT subscription TV package that starts at $20 per month, is a commendable and ambitious attempt at creating a service that’s tailored to fit the needs of so-called cord-cutters and cord-nevers.

While the variety of programming packages offered therein will need to evolve and expand to ensure that they can appeal to different segments of this small but growing group of consumers, I found that the technology underpinning Sling TV to be solid and reliable, backed up by a slick user interface that is easy to learn and navigate.

But that’s not to say that Sling TV is saddled with some initial limitations (no unified trick-play support, for example) that could lead to customer frustration. More on that later.

For the purpose of this review ahead of Sling TV’s commercial launch (expected to happen in the next couple of weeks), Dish set me up with a set of credentials that provided access to the core service, a 12-channel package it calls “The Best of Live TV,” as well as channels included in its  “Kids Extra” and “News & Info Extra” packs, which will each cost an additional $5 per month.

With all of those factored in, here’s what I had access to: (ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel , CNN, HLN, Bloomberg Television, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV),  plus a video-on-demand library.  For this multi-hour review of the service, I ran it on my own iPad Air and a Roku 3 unit that Dish loaned out.

Signing On: Easy Peasy

Once the Sling TV app was downloaded to those platforms, the sign-on process was Netflix-simple. I just plugged in my user name and password, and I was streaming live TV channels moments later. No calls to customer support to have my diaper changed; no truck roll required. Again, a very easy process.

Sling TV uses adaptive bit rate streaming (a capability EchoStar acquired through its $45 million purchase of Move Networks back in 2011), meaning that the bit rate and quality/resolution of the video fluctuates based on the amount of bandwidth available. That’s particularly helpful here because the Sling TV service (like all OTT services) runs on unmanaged, best-effort broadband connections that aren’t in Dish’s control.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that the service worked best over my home WiFi network (running 802.11n from a high-speed cable modem connection) on the Roku and the iPad than it did when I accessing it via tablet using LTE.

WiFi Vs. LTE

When accessed at home on WiFi, the video stream spooled up quickly and filled up the screen with HD goodness. Generally, it took two to three seconds to switch channels – not perfect, but not annoying, either.

On LTE, it sometimes took longer for streams to build, to switch channels and for visual elements of the UI to populate on-screen. On occasion, when the service had to buffer due to a lack of LTE bandwidth, the screen would go black and post a message telling me it was “catching up.”

That message never appeared in my few hours with the service on my home  WiFi network – it always seemed to run smoothly. Outside of some rare stuttering of the audio, the live TV and VOD streams generally looked vivid, crisp and bright on my Samsung 1080p HDTV set. I could activate and deactivate the closed captioning with a touch of a button.

Sling TV’s interfaces for the iPad and the Roku have been developed to support their respective platforms while sharing a similar look and feel. How to scroll and swipe my way around the service was intuitive, and I never felt like I was lost.

I also checked to see if Sling TV’s single-stream policy per account was in play. And indeed it was. While watching Sling TV on the Roku, I fired up the app on the iPad, and moments later the following message appeared on the TV screen: “Your video has been stopped because content is being viewed on another device.”

Sling TV’s VOD offering is a work in progress as it will be made to offer on-demand access to some TV shows from its linear TV partners. It has lots of potential, though I doubt it will cause subs to flee from SVOD services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video or cause them to drop electronic sell-through offerings from Amazon, VUDU or M-GO.

For my kick of the tires, I had access to a large library of VOD movies, broken down by categories such as New Releases, Most Popular, Collections (Car Chases, Gumshoe Movies, New Year’s Eve Movies, Horror Comedies, among them), Movies from BIGFlix, Action & Adventure, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Foreign Films, Horror, Kids & Family, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Thriller, Classics, Romance, and War & Westerns.

A nice touch is a feature that lets users filter the VOD library by parental ratings, HD-only, and Rotten Tomatoes rankings (to steer myself away from the dreck, I could tell the VOD system,  for example, only to pull up titles that have a freshness ranking of 90% or better).

Limitations

While Dish’s initial version of Sling TV has lots of potential, the service does come with some limitations that extend beyond its relatively tidy live TV lineup.

Support of trick-play functions and the ability to start a show currently airing from the beginning is not uniform. While users can pause live programming and restart shows from Duck TV, BabyTV and those from the Scripps Networks stable, I couldn’t do the same on channels like ESPN and Disney Channel.  While those limitations are likely tied to Dish’s distribution rights for Sling TV, they do represent things that Sling TV users will need to learn about and contend with as they go along.

And while Sling TV will give users the ability to watch some TV shows on demand after their original airing (without allowing users to fast-forward through the ads), the lack of a DVR option could be a turn-off for some potential consumers.

Another quibble: As is the case with many authenticated TV Everywhere services that are delivered OTT, Sling TV’s live feeds appear to be a few minutes behind the broadcasts delivered by a traditional MVPD.  That could present some spoiler potential should a Sling TV user like to follow social media during live sporting events.  

I’m not in the demographic that Dish is targeting with Sling TV, so it’s hard to say if the initial core offering and add-on packages will be enough to appeal to many consumers in that group.  But it does provide a piece of the puzzle for a targeted segment that will likely look to other stand-alone subscription services like Hulu Plus and/or CBS All Access to gain access to popular TV shows offered on broadcast TV. And there’s no option HBO, though that won’t be an issue when HBO launches its standalone OTT service later this year.

The Bottom Line

Sling TV is an admirable first step toward a service that could make sense for cord-cutters who can live with access to just one stream and have interest in Sling TV’s initial programming lineup. As designed, it won’t attract families and other multi-member households, so I don’t expect it to cannibalize Dish’s legacy pay-TV base or put much of a dent into the larger traditional pay-TV universe.

While the amount of live TV offered in the baseline package for $20 per month delivers value, I suspect (as Dish has readily acknowledged) that most of its customers will require OTT fare from elsewhere (and maybe invest in a set of digital rabbit ears) to color in their video needs.

The technology that drives Sling TV worked smoothly on the iPad and the Roku 3, and, in most instances during my limited time with the service, supplied a lovely HD image that is comparable to what I get from Comcast.

But it still comes down to pricing and programming. The success of Sling TV will hinge on how creative Dish can get with programming packages and how flexible it is allowed to be as it secures more rights that can be applied toward the new service.

It’s already moving in that direction as Sling TV gets set to add content from Maker Studios, a new “Sports Extra” add-on pack, and a broader access to VOD content from the existing channel lineup.

So, all-in-all, Sling TV is an impressive technological effort that, based on its current slate of content and capabilities, will have limited appeal…but I suppose that’s what it’s designed for. 

It will be interesting to see how many consumers who take the one-week free trial stick with the program, and if Dish can gain and retain a subscriber base that’s large enough to make much of an impact in the early going.

While the success of Sling TV is not assured, credit goes to Dish for developing and introducing an offering that represents an important moment for the pay-TV industry. 

And I suspect it’s just the start. As Dish learns more about the market it’s targeting and as more programmers decide to play ball, it’s sure to develop and evolve content offerings it can place on top of the technology foundation that it has built.

But I won’t be surprised at all to see other MVPDs, including major cable operators, jump in with similar offerings this year. 

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