At some point in the future when we look back on the major tech developments of 2015, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll remember it as the year that pay TV really began its migration onto the Internet.
In January, for instance, Dish introduced Sling TV, which puts a subset of major cable channels onto Roku boxes, Fire TV and Fire Sticks, phones and tablets, and, as of this week, the Xbox One. HBO’s HBO Now service is about to debut, at first as an exclusive on Apple devices. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple hopes to launch a TV service with around 25 channels this fall.
And then there’s Sony’s PlayStation Vue. The streaming service, which Sony announced last year, is going live today in three markets: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with more to come. It’s being rolled out city by city because it includes local CBS, Fox, and NBC stations as well as regional sports.
The local content is only one way in which Vue feels more like a full-blown cable competitor than Sling TV, which is its closest counterpart. Both let you watch live streams of major channels, but Vue’s selection is more sprawling: more than 85 channels, vs. a little over 50 for Sling. And Vue also has a cloud-based DVR and on-demand playback of shows, replicating more of the pay-TV experience than Sling, which is mostly about live programming.
As the “PlayStation” in its name suggests, PlayStation Vue isn’t about watching TV anywhere and everywhere–at least not yet. At launch, it’s available only on Sony’s own PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 consoles. But Sony says that it’s also going to bring it to other gadgets, starting with the iPad.
Pricing is another key difference between PlayStation Vue and Sling TV. Sling is cheap by cable standards, with a base plan that’s $20 a month. For $5 a month apiece, you can supplement it with add-on packs focused on specific topics: kids, sports, news, movies, and a catch-all called “lifestyle.” That approach feels like the start of an era in which you pay less for TV, and get to tweak the lineup to your tastes.
PlayStation Vue’s pricing is higher, and its packages offer less flexibility. For $50 a month you get the Access plan, with more than 50 channels, including most of the high-profile ones the service offers, such as AMC (coming in April), CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, Nick, and Syfy, plus local stations. For $60, you get the Core plan, with all of the above plus some sports channels (which vary by region), and TCM. The $70 Elite package adds another 25 channels, none of which are truly big names and some which I’d never heard of. (Centric?)
Those prices might save you money over cable. (I currently play $88.99 a month to Comcast, plus $10.29 a month in taxes and fees, albeit for far more channels than either Vue or Sling offer.) But by the standards of the Internet–a place where some people balk at paying $9 a month for Netflix–they’re imposing.
I can’t imagine anyone paying for cable or satellite and PlayStation Vue; it’s targeted at people who want a lot of choice and are willing to pay a substantial amount for it. And though its lineup of channels is more comprehensive than Sling’s, both are full of holes. Sling, for instance, has a deal with Disney, which gets it ABC Family and a gaggle of variants of ESPN, among other things; Vue has stuff from CBS, Fox, and NBC, but nothing from Disney/ABC.
Here, for the record, is a comparison of the channel lineups on Vue and Sling. Green means a channel is available on both services, at least in their highest-priced tiers; magenta means it’s on Vue only; yellow means Sling only. See you on the other side…
Still with me? Great.
Sony recently gave me a sneak peek at PlayStation Vue in action, and what I saw looked impressive. The interface was recognizably PlayStation-like, with vertically scrolling menus of the sort that show up everywhere on Sony’s consoles. There are multiple ways to find programs to watch, including a pretty nifty filtering mode which lets you winnow them down by genre, age group, and other factors until you’ve zeroed in on something to your taste. Even the typical channel grid looks atypically well done: It lists your favorite channels first, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Overall, Vue emphasizes shows over channels. And even though the fact it offers live streams of channels is one of its defining features, it doesn’t matter that much whether a program happens to be on when you feel like watching it. The interface neatly ties together live airings, catch-up availability of recent episodes, on-demand showing of earlier ones, and anything you’ve recorded on your cloud DVR. It feels a little like cable as we know it, a little like Hulu, and a little like TiVo.
I don’t expect this service to become a Netflix-like blockbuster, even if Sony eventually rolls it out on phones and Roku and smart TVs and all the other places video addicts would like to watch it. For one thing, the price points are just too imposing. For another, by resembling cable TV so closely, it caters to consumers who probably already have cable, and might not be in a rush to dump it.
Still, even if you have no intention of paying for PlayStation Vue–after the seven-day free trial–it’s worth taking note of its arrival. More competition for cable and satellite providers is never a bad thing. The companies that own pay channels need inducements to turn their offerings into Internet streams. And everybody benefits when fresh thinking gets brought to the challenge of making vast quantities of programming feel less like an off-putting avalanche and more like an inviting smorgasbord. On all these fronts, Sony’s service is welcome news for TV watchers.