There are two ways to look at Sling TV, the new internet-based TV service that will be announced by Dish on Monday at CES: It’s either a poor replacement of what cable has to offer, lacking even basic programming. Or it’s finally a way for cord cutters who don’t want to give up on sports to get ESPN live streaming, plus a few extra stations, for just $20 a month.
Sling TV will be available over the internet, and consumers will be able to watch the service on the web as well as via Roku, Fire TV, Android TV and Xbox One as well as iOS and Android. Chromecast and Apple TV are notably absent from the list, but Sling TV executives told me during a recent interview that they plan to add additional devices in the near future. Most, but not all channels offer DVR-like pause, rewind and fast forward features. And consumers will be able to access some shows up to three days after they air — but there are once again limits dictated by the contracts that Dish has with TV networks.
Sling TV: Not like any other TV service
Dish is not the only company looking to launch an internet-based TV service. Intel tried the same thing with its OnCue service, but eventually gave up on the idea and sold OnCue’s assets to Verizon. Sony announced its own internet-based TV service at CES in Las Vegas a year ago, and began limited tests of the service late last year. But Sony’s approach is very different from Dish’s: The PlayStation maker has been busy signing deals for big bundles, like the one with Viacom that will bring a total of 22 channels to Sony’s TV service, including not only popular networks like Comedy Central but also little-watched properties like VH1 Soul and Palladia.
“That type of deal that Sony signed with them is not a deal that we would do,” said Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch during a recent interview. He added that Comedy Central content is already “widely distributed,” with consumers being able to watch shows like the Daily Show on the show’s website or on Hulu.
Lynch maintained that the same is true for broadcast networks like Fox or CBS, which Sling TV doesn’t carry. Consumers can access their feeds with an antenna, or catch up on shows on Hulu or elsewhere, he argued, adding: “The fact is that they are already watching it.” Lynch said that Sling TV may add a broadcast tier “over time,” offering consumers to stream content from broadcaster for an extra fee. “We don’t want to force everyone to buy them,” he said.
Instead, Sling TV is betting that all of its customers want access to ESPN, which is the service’s crown jewel at launch. Or, as Lynch put it: “ESPN is an anchor.”
That’s an interesting bet, because it could actually work: Sports has been the deal-breaker for many would-be cord cutters, who just hold on to their $100-a-month cable bill because they don’t want to miss their team’s games. With Sling TV, they may now get what they want for just 20 bucks a month. Plus, the basic tier also comes with access to some content from WatchESPN, the sportscaster’s online video service. Specifically, Sling TV subscribers will have access to the ESPN1, ESPN2 and ESPN3 through the WatchESPN app.
DishWorld will be folded into Sling TV
The move towards new online distribution models doesn’t come out of the blue for Dish. The company acquired online video platform provider Move Networks five years ago, and used the Move team to build out its own online team. That team actually launched a first online TV service in early 2013: DishWorld provides expats in the U.S. with access to live TV networks from countries like India, Brazil or Vietnam.
Lynch told me that it’s been a success for the company, helping to grow the audience for international channels, which were previously only available as part of Dish’s service, threefold. He didn’t reveal any subscriber numbers, but said that consumers who do pay for international TV stations through Dishworld watch over five hours of programming via the service every day on average.
Dishworld is currently run by a team of 250 people, and Lynch said that the company plans to staff up in the coming months. “It’s in a way our big beta,” he said. It’s worth noting that this beta test is now over: DishWorld is going to be folded into Sling TV and rebranded as Sling International.
Is Dish suddenly a cord cutter’s best friend?
So will Sling TV eat into Dish’s traditional subscriber base? Lynch and the service’s Chief Marketing Officer Glenn Eisen insisted that won’t be the case, with Eisen telling me Sling TV is a separate business unit with the company that goes after a different set of customers. The service targets people who already have cut the cord, and what he called cord-haters: “Psychologically, they have already cut the cord.”
That’s nice rhetoric, but it doesn’t hide the fact that Dish is in the long run just as vulnerable as cable. The TV industry has seen a small but notable decline of subscribers in recent quarters, but online viewing has grown rapidly at the same time, suggesting that there may be more radical changes of consumption patterns ahead. Quizzed about this, Eisen and Lynch told me that Dish was cognizant of these shifts, but also optimistic that the industry could return to growth by embracing new models. Said Eisen: “If we care about growing the market, then we had to pivot.”
This post was updated throughout at 12:30pm with additional details shared during Dish’s CES press conference. It was updated again at 2:31pm and 4:28pm to clarify how much WatchESPN is part of Sling TV.