Dish took the wraps off its long-in-the-works Internet-delivered TV service today, long known as “NuTV” but now officially known as SlingTV. (Dish has a working relationship with the Slingbox company but there is no other relationship between SlingTV and Slingbox.) For $20 a month you can sign up for a dozen channels from Disney, Turner, and Scripps, including the A&E networks partly owned by Disney and – crucially – ESPN, all delivered over the Internet, plus additional genre-based add-on packages for kids’ channels, news and info channels, and eventually, sports channels. The techie blogosphere, long friendly to “cord-cutting”, is over the moon at the possibility of being able to watch ESPN “without a cable subscription”, “liberated from the cable bundle” in GigaOm’s phrasing. GigaOm calls it “a cord-cutter’s best friend”; “a cord-cutter’s dream”, agrees Deadline; an “over-the-top alternative to the cable bundle”, writes TechCrunch.
None of these are in any way true. Sling TV may not be a cable company in the sense that they string a bunch of wires to your house (or in Dish’s case, put a satellite dish on your roof) and deliver hundreds of channels through it, but it is very much a cable bundle, even if a smaller one. You can’t pick and choose which channels of the base package of twelve you want and discard the rest, and you certainly can’t forego any of those base channels if you want any of the genre packages – especially important when Dish’s existing DishWorld service will be folded into SlingTV. Dish seems to be indicating it intends to keep the SlingTV suite lighter than a typical cable subscription, but make no mistake: the only reason this service doesn’t have more channels is because Dish hasn’t been able to get any other companies on board. If they could get AMC (and the other networks owned by AMC Networks), FX (and the other Fox-owned networks, including Fox Sports 1), or most other big companies’ packages of networks (especially Comcast for USA and NBCSN), they would.
Although Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the two most hated companies in America for a variety of reasons, the desire to be free of “the cable bundle” has never been about anything specific to them or their infrastructure. The channels have always been what’s mattered; how they’re delivered is immaterial. In that sense, what SlingTV is offering isn’t much different from what any other traditional cable provider is offering – something that should be especially apparent when the FCC is considering new rules that would treat Internet-delivered TV providers the same as any other cable or satellite company. TechCrunch paints Dish Network’s original launch as a challenge to the existing hegemony of the cable companies; Dish is now part of that hegemony. What makes them think SlingTV will be any different? Sure, it is cheaper than a traditional cable subscription for now, although given that cable companies often charge as much or even more than Internet alone than they do for Internet and TV, don’t expect to save all that much.
SlingTV believes access to ESPN is its killer app, but I won’t buy that any service like SlingTV is really going to break up the cable bundle unless and until it makes it easier for people to be able to not get ESPN. Anyone who signs up for SlingTV because of the programming on Food Network, Disney Channel, or A&E is supporting ESPN’s hegemony over the sports landscape every bit as much as they would be if they kept their existing cable subscription – and people who are interested in sports won’t get access to the regional sports networks that may be the real reason they aren’t cutting the cord. ESPN is the big winner here: it gets to appeal to “cord-cutters” without losing its hold on its lucrative business model that collects millions of dollars from people with zero interest in sports and funnels that into programming like the NFL playoffs and the College Football Playoff that make it a peer of the broadcast networks. SlingTV does nothing to break up that hegemony; it preserves it.
So to me, the real interesting part of this announcement (besides the ability to sign up and cancel the service any time with no long-term commitment) is that Dish is not including the broadcast networks, not even ABC, in SlingTV, even though a big reason it was able to get Disney on board was to settle ABC’s suit against the company for the AutoHop feature to skip commercials on broadcast networks. When Dish eventually does offer them, it’ll be as a separate add-on. The implicit message: We shouldn’t have to pay retransmission consent fees and jack up the price of our slimmed-down, low-cost service when our customers tend to be urban and capable of picking up broadcast signals with an antenna (not to mention, can watch a lot of broadcast shows on Hulu). I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that if the FCC makes them play by cable’s rules, since cable companies are required to carry any station that doesn’t ask for retrans on their most basic package and do the same for any station they agree to pay retrans for, and I’ve come out against “a la carte” proposals that make it easier to go without broadcast stations without making it easier to pick and choose cable networks like the “local choice” scheme that was floating around Congress a while back. But considering Dish has made clear it doesn’t see Sling TV as a full-fledged replacement for cable or satellite, if they can in fact make broadcast stations optional, perhaps it will serve as an impetus for broadcasters to invest in their signals instead of disdaining their own nominal medium in favor of being just another kind of cable channel.