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The Perils of Sling TV II

"Please Stand By" Old Indian Head test pattern from RCA used from 1940's till color was used. Public Domain
“Please Stand By”
Old Indian Head test pattern from RCA used from 1940’s till color was used.
Public Domain

It is Monday and another black eye for Sling TV hoping to convince people to switch to them. HBO is now part of the growing options one can access through the service so many people signed up so they could view Game of Thrones on HBO. Unfortunately the service experienced technical problems. The Roku app would not load in some cases (that happened to me though I was trying to access ESPN) or took a very long time to load. The upshot: plenty of angry subscribers and Sling having to apologize.

 Tech Crunch said it succinctly:

The network finally risked offering an over-the-top version of its service to the 10 million broadband-only U.S. homes, despite the fact that the majority of its revenues still come from pay TV subscribers, but it could struggle to grow that cord cutting audience if they think that the streaming options are hit-or-miss when it comes to reliability and stability.

And that is exactly the problem. If people believe that services like Sling are hit and miss in content delivery, they will not be so quick to sign up for them. Apple will be the next big entrant into the field with their own service in the fall. Hopefully it will run much smoother.

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The Perils of Sling TV

When I last wrote about Sling, I was not overly optimistic about this service. It offers some compelling programming for a decent price but has drawbacks. One was lacking the dvr capability of a TIVO. And the other I now realize is the technical aspect. In other words, delivering the product.

ESPN and ESPN 2 is part of the basic bundle and I decided to try it out again so I could watch MLB baseball. Thanks to exclusive content contracts, all MLB programming goes to specific sports channels and the blackout restrictions are pretty heavy. Unless you pay for full cable or satellite package, you will not be seeing much MLB baseball on local broadcast channels. MLB Premium allows you watch just about every game except for the local teams you are excluded from watching. So ESPN gives me a chance to watch some baseball without costing an arm and leg.

Except they are having serious problems. Not only are there occasional feed problems, the infamous “You are Not Allowed To Watch” sign pops up and the game you are watching is gone. I had it more than once and contacted Sling about it. This is their reply:

We are aware that when volumes are high, some programming becomes difficult to stream. We at Sling TV are working as hard as we can in order to provide you with the best or services to our customers. Thank you for giving us this feedback so that we may better accommodate you

It is being reported on other forums as well and seriously angering sports fans. And for good reason. The draw for many is to be able to watch ESPN for as low cost as possible. $20 is a decent price but if the content is constantly being interrupted by technical problems, people are not going to be patient. They will, like me, finally give up in frustration at these problems. Why bother watching a game when it becomes a exercise in frustration with stuttered picture quality or the infamous you are blocked from watching the game sign? Sling is not ready for prime time is my assessment. Sad to say but if you want reliable sports programming via ESPN cable and satellite is still the way to go.

According to engadget.com, there was a major problem on Sling TV. Many tuned in to watch the NCAA Final Four games only to have them unwatchable or blocked. According to engadget:

” a combo of “extreme sign-ups and streaming” triggered the meltdown — Dish wasn’t prepared for the flood of new customers, and had to juggle the load across its networking partners to get things back to normal. That’s an auspicious sign for Sling TV’s future (there’s clearly a lot of demand for live sports online), but let’s hope that it’s better prepared for the next big wave of cord cutters.”


Sling TV:Not For Everyone

It is hard to recall but at one time cable television was a radical change in viewing television. When I was very young, rabbit ears on top of our old television set brought television into the living room. There were not many channels to watch back then. There were the three big networks (ABC,CBS & NBC) plus taxpayer supported PBS, and a very small number of independent channels. It was about six or seven channels that you could watch. We said goodbye to the antenna when cable finally arrived and hello to the cable box. It brought clearer signals and unless something was wrong with the cable service, reliable quality. Cable television spurred the growth of cable only channels and of course movie channels.

Cable companies became de facto monopolies in most cities and without competition, the rates began to soar. Changes in technology and how information was delivered changed all that. Not just the obvious one (the Internet) but smaller steps that changed how media was delivered. It began with the humble video cassette recorder. Yes the humble vcr allowed you to record movies off live television but opened up a market for renting and selling movies to customers. There were grumbles from the big movie companies but eventually they all lined up.Then came the compact disc and later the dvd. Cable boxes became a thing of the past with a cable tuner inside a standard television or vcr. Then came the digital video recorder allowing the pausing of live television as well as record shows. The Internet begat streaming and services like Netflix took advantage of it to stream media right into people’s homes. Satellite technology had advanced enough to have small antennas and compete directly with cable companies as well (and offer channels at less cost than cable).

The Internet though is the game changer. With more people wanting to view movies online or streamed to their favorite media device, people began cord cutting. Most downgraded their services, like me, to just local broadcast channels and used services like Netflix or Hulu to fill in the gaps. Suddenly the cable companies had a serious threat. People are fed up with paying bundles for a whole bunch of channels they do not watch. Cable companies have to pay a fee to every cable channel based on subscribers. Some channels have small fees and others like ESPN command high fees that in turn cause rate hikes and spats. This inefficient system means cable channels are being subsidized by every cable subscriber in the country. Which explains why very low rated cable only channels can stay afloat as long as they are picked up by cable systems.

Which brings us to Sling TV. By no means is this the end of the cable companies but it marks a shift in how people are going to get cable channel programming. Sling TV is offering a limited number of packages that have some popular cable channels. The basic package is $20 and comes with ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN, El Rey Network, Maker, and Galavision. AMC is coming soon. Other packages add some extra sports, kids programming, and news. Sling is owned by Dish TV, a satellite television provider. Sling is available on most mobile, computer, and streaming services. I have a Roku box and a computer so I can watch on either one (but not at the same time). The video quality is good but there are caveats. There is limited dvr like abilities. ESPN does not allow you to pause live television but others do. There is limited archive of shows you missed. Schedules shown may not be accurate (I use TVGuide app on my iPhone to see what is upcoming-I just have to remember to add three hours for Eastern time).

Aside from the problems I mentioned, another issue for many is that Sling simply replicates cable tv in a different format. You still get bundled television and not al la carte programming where you create a bundle of channels you want to watch. Thus you are still paying for channels you do not want to watch. Out of the basic bundle only ESPN, Food and Travel are of interest to me. The other channels are of little interest so I am paying again (but with a smaller fee)for channels I do not want or watch. ESPN is the big draw and one reason many will want to try it out. I probably will drop Sling for now but sign back up again when baseball season gets going because some games are only played on ESPN.Then again without that dvr function I would be hard pressed to do that.

Will Sling TV work? The cable companies do not want the competition and channel owners will put restrictions on how their channels are shown (like preventing people from fast forwarding through commercials when viewing the archive). Without the dvr ability, I see a lot of people checking it out then saying meh and moving on. Perhaps Tivo and Sling ought to work together for an app that will allow OTA/limited cable users the ability to record shows. It is a step in the right direction but only just a step.