Sling TV

DISH Steps Up the Fight with Cable TV

Sling TVIf I were looking for people to break down the force of TV show producers (including sports), broadcasters, and cable carriers, I’d keep a close eye on Charlie Ergen, founder and chairman of DISH Network.

Just before the start of CES on Jan. 5, DISH unveiled content for Sling TV, a service announced last summer, to deliver programming to internet devices including Roku and Xbox One as well as PCs. The services that really count are HBO and live sports on ESPN. The limited service of ESPN, currently available only to cable subscribers, is a serious blow to the future of cable. It will especially be true if DISH, which has developed some good program display systems for its cable boxes, can improve the list for internet-based programming.

$20 bargain. The $20 a month charge makes the service very attractive. Throw in $30 a month or so to Netflix, get Amazon Video with the subscription to Amazon Prime, some free services such as PBS, and you have quite a cable TV package for substantially less than Comcast, TWC and the others want.

There are some obvious disadvantages. Sling TV is designed to be watched on a single device at a time (of course, clever users may find a way around this). At least initially, it will not be available for Chromecast or the Apple TV. And getting local broadcast stations will require a tuner and antenna–and the quality may decline if you are either too close or too far from the transmitter site.

The initial demonstration shows that the programming will be a lot like existing internet service and that is likely to be a drawback. I have had a Roku for as long as the service has existed and the miserable program listing still continues. First, you have to select the service for the program you want and then look through the listing for the channel. Many show programs in what seems to be a random order. Searching alphabetically is an alternative to searching by view, but entering letters using the Roku controller requires going painfully through the on-screen keyboard (and weirdly, the iPhone Roku app forces you to peck your way through the letters on the screen rather than use the keyboard). I despise the display of shows on the screen from my FiOS set top box but even this is heaven compared to the Roku screen.

Questions about sports. Providing two sports stations, ESPN and ESPN2, also raises some questions. Most of the internet stations make all programs available at the same time and you get to chose what you want to watch at the time. But the sports events have to be offered live as they occur. What will the selection look like and how will it work?

There’s also the question about how good the quality of sports will be. I have watched a number of sports events from ESPN, Big Ten Network, and broadcast networks on both mobile devices and PCs. The quality has often been poor, with blackouts, freeze ups, and reduction of picture quality. Fortunately, DISH has some really good picture quality for its Sling service and maybe it is in a position to bring significant improvement.

We won’t be able to fully judge this service until it becomes available later this year. But the opportunity for significant improvement to the existing cable and internet service is needed. Let’s hope DISH brings it.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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