CES may stand for "Consumer Electronics Show," but the most intriguing launch at last year's event wasn't a piece of consumer electronics. Instead, it was Sling TV—a streaming service from Dish that looks a lot like cable TV, except that it starts at $20 a month, lets you add bundles of additional channels in $5 increments, and is available on smartphones, tablets, Roku, Xbox, and other devices rather than wedded to a particular TV.
Sling hasn't instantly changed everything, and it still has plenty of limitations. But a year after its debut, it remains the clearest first rough draft of what the future of pay TV might look like. And at CES 2016, it's showing off the first major revision to its interface. (It will arrive on Roku later this quarter, then make its way to other devices.)
Even though the Sling lineup numbers in the low dozens of channels, it can be a challenge to find the shows you want to watch among all the programming you couldn't care less about. So the new interface is less about sorting sports, movies, and episodic TV into channels, and more about spotlighting specific items you might care about.
What many Sling TV subscribers care about is sports—the fact that it includes ESPN is a big deal—and Sling puts live and upcoming events onto one screen which you can filter down to show particular activities, such as basketball games. A similar view shows movies, no matter which channel they're on. And "My TV" features your most-watched shows and on-demand items which you began watching but haven't yet completed.
Sling is also bundling up specific series, including new episodes, repeats, and entire seasons available in the service's 10,000 hours of on-demand programming. That's not only a boon for binge-watchers, but also helps work around some holes in its lineup. For instance, the service doesn't have CBS, which means that new episodes of The Big Bang Theory are missing. But there are copious amounts of the show available in the form of reruns, and now they'll all be available in one place.
In some of these views, the service will also show related items available in a $5 bonus pack you aren't currently subscribed to—such as a movie available in the "Hollywood Extra" pack—and let you upgrade on the spot. That might be handy if it alerts you to something you genuinely want to watch. But Sling will have to make sure that it doesn't come off as pushy marketing rather than useful information.
Once the new interface rolls out, the company plans to use it as a framework for guides that will get more sophisticated over time. For instance, it intends to add recommendations of programs based on its knowledge of what you've watched in the past, and to highlight items that are trending among all Sling subscribers.
In addition to the interface tweaks, Sling TV is announcing that it's adding ESPN3 to its base $20 package. That's a significant technical and logistical achievement: ESPN3 isn't a conventional channel, but rather a streaming service unto itself that shows up to 60 events at a time, from college football to tennis to cricket. They'll all be integrated into the Sling programming guide in a way that hasn't been done before.
In the year since its debut, Sling has done a good job of building out its lineup with new channels, including ones such as ESPN3 that it's simply added to the $20 package. Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch told me that the service is getting to the point where it's offering as much TV as it can in that basic bundle—and that raising the price to accommodate more channels would violate the cheap-and-simple recipe that makes Sling innovative in the first place. "Our $20 price point is more important than any channel partner we could launch," he says.