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Review: Sling TV, An Intriguing–But Incomplete–First Draft Of The Future Of Pay TV

The most interesting thing about this streaming service–with ESPN and other channels–isn’t what it does. It’s what it portends.

For years now, two words have summed up how I feel about my cable TV service: too much. Not only am I paying too much ($88.99 a month), but I’m getting too much–dozens and dozens of channels that nobody in my household will ever watch.

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I could be happier with far fewer channels at a lower price. Especially if it were as easy to get at those channels from my smartphone and tablet as it is on the TV in my living room.

Enter Dish Network’s Sling Television. One of the highest-profile debutantes unveiled earlier this month at CES, it’s a slimmed-down, truly Net-savvy pay TV service. For $20 a month you get a dozen major channels, most notably ESPN and ESPN2, but also ABC Family, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, CNN, Disney, Food Network, HGTV, TBS, TNT, and the Travel Channel. Add-on packs with additional channels of children’s and informational channels are another $5 apiece. And everything is delivered across the Internet to a range of devices: iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Roku and Amazon Fire TV boxes, and more.

Sling TV will start allowing people who pre-registered into the service on Tuesday. Within two weeks, Dish says, it’ll be open to all comers, with a free one-week trial offer. I’ve been trying out the service in pre-release form for the last few days.

Dish, of course, is is best known for its satellite TV service; Sling TV doesn’t have anything to do with that. Nor is it particularly related to the venerable line of Slingbox place-shifting gadgets now owned by EchoStar, a company closely affiliated with Dish–even the box which until recently was called the SlingTV. (It’s now called the Slingbox 500.)

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Now, the fact that Sling TV includes ESPN is a big, potentially epoch-shifting deal. Not just because ESPN and ESPN2 are two of pay TV’s signature channels, but because access to live sporting events has been scarce on the Internet, even as services such as Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Video have proliferated. Being able to stream ESPN may lead some people who have been flirting with dumping cable to finally do the deed.

Sling TV on the iPhone

But Dish maintains that Sling TV isn’t primarily aimed at such folks. Instead, the company says, it’s tailored the service for millennials who never bothered to get cable in the first place. You might not guess so from the initial lineup of channels, though. With stuff like Disney and HGTV, it feels like it was assembled to please a not-so-millennial someone who has kids and owns a home.

The truth may be that Sling TV, in its first incarnation, offers the channels that Dish was able to cajole into being part of the service. So be it. The companies who own these networks have been exceedingly timid about messing with their traditional business model by making their programming available on the Net. Dish, which seems to specialize in making the TV industry uncomfortable in ways that benefit TV watchers–as it did with its commercial-zapping DVR–has accomplished something remarkable by piecing together this service at all.

Channels In The Stream

Except for the fact that it offers live pay TV channels familiar from cable and satellite, Sling TV has much in common with Net-native streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. All you need is a subscription, which you can cancel at any time, and one or more devices that are compatible with Dish’s Sling TV apps. You can watch over Wi-Fi or–be careful about that data plan–your phone or tablet’s cellular connection.

You can, however, only watch the service on one device at a time; no tuning into a ball game on your phone allowed if your spouse is watching CNN on the Roku back home. (Some sort of discounted family plan would be nice.)

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I spent quality time with Sling TV on my iPhone, iPad, and Roku 3 box. As with other streaming services, this one calibrates its picture quality to deal with the bandwidth available to it; in my experiences, it was usually decent, and often impressively crisp. And the user interface, which lets you browse what’s available on other channels without leaving the one you’re on, is effective and straightforward. (Naturally, it’s easier for an interface to feel simple when it only has to deal with a handful of channels rather than scads of them.)

Besides the available TV channels, you can also use the apps to rent movies. The selection is spotty–Lucy and Boxtrolls are available, but Gone Girl and Boyhood are not. With so many other ways to stream movies already available, that doesn’t seem catastrophic. And Dish says it’s working on beefing up the offerings.

Feature-wise, this is a pretty bare-bones approach to TV watching. There’s no DVR functionality or–aside from the movie rentals–conventional on-demand programming. The closest the service gets to letting you watch what you want when you want is an option that lets you hit the video’s player reverse button to step back through not only the show you’re watching but the last three days’ worth of programming. It’s only available on a few channels, though–not including ESPN.

In fact, ESPN and ESPN2, unlike most of the channels, don’t even let you press pause to stop the action temporarily. They also fill time that would otherwise be used for ads with an ESPN logo and the message, “Commercial break. We’ll be right back.” Staring at that screen while you wait for a show to continue gets old fast.

Get ready to stare at this message.

For anyone who’s watched TV in the era of DVRs and streaming services, it all feels rather inflexible; this is a service for people who are willing to adjust their lives to accommodate regularly scheduled programming. At least Dish says that Sling TV subscribers will qualify for access to ESPN’s WatchESPN service, giving them on-demand access to sports programming. The company also says that every one of its channels will eventually offer on-demand content.

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Another thing that leaves Sling TV as less than a complete substitute for other forms of pay TV is the absence of local broadcast stations. You may wish to stick up an antenna and watch these the old-fashioned way: over the air.

So what’s the bottom line with Sling TV? To resort to a cliché–it’s one because it’s true–content is king. There are going to be some people who care enough about the channels the service offers to pay $20 a month. Sports fans especially. But there will more who will look at the lineup and fixate on what’s currently missing.

Dish says it plans to add more choices shortly, including exclusive content from Maker Studios and an optional add-on pack with even more sports. With any luck, other major pay channels will come online, and Dish will allow subscribers to put together their own lineups. I’ve got a dozen favorite stations that I’d cheerfully pay $20 a month for. Maybe you do, too. Sling TV, even in this first version, makes that possibility feel more real than it ever has before.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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