If the answer is to save money, then a product that offers live TV over the Internet, at a lower cost than cable, should be a huge hit. Enter Sling TV, a new offering from Dish Network that gives you 12 cable channels, including ESPN and CNN, for $20 a month, with no contracts, fees, or cords attached. You can watch it on the Web or as an app on a streaming device such as Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Nexus Player. It feels a lot like regular cable, only with fewer channels, a few more technical hitches, and the occasional slowdown when your Internet connection lags. (Update, Feb. 9, 2015: As of Monday, Sling TV is live and available to the public. It has also added AMC to its channel roster, as well as an optional $5 per month sports package that includes SEC Network, ESPNews, and several other ESPN channels.)
As a cord-cutter who misses live news and sports, I am the target audience for these services. I reported on Sling TV enthusiastically when it was announced in January, and I’ve been watching it on a Roku 3 for the past two weeks. I expected to love it, and at first I did.
It has the makings of a great product. Yet, for me, it has raised a nagging question that could spell trouble, not only for Sling TV, but for its Sony and Apple rivals and the pay-TV sector as a whole. What if saving money isn’t the main reason that I and so many others are going without cable? What if a growing number of people have discovered they’re simply happier without it?
Sling TV quickly reminded me of everything I’d missed about in my five years without cable—and then, eventually, everything I hadn’t. Here are the three biggest things I realized I had missed about having cable:
1. Casual viewing
When you’re watching Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, you’re really watching it. Of all the possible TV episodes and movies, you’ve queued up the one you most want to see at that very moment. You know in advance how long it will run, and you’ve implicitly committed yourself to seeing it through. Anything that distracts you from it becomes an interruption and cause for resentment.
That isn’t necessarily the case with cable TV. Sure, sometimes you’ll tune in at a particular time to catch the latest episode of a favorite show. More often, all you’ve decided in advance is that you have the minimal time and inclination required to flip on the tube and see what’s on.
This can be liberating. If there’s nothing you want to watch, you can turn the TV right back off and do something else. If you find something that mildly interests you, you might leave it on but continue to do other things in the meantime, like check your email, return a friend’s text, play with the dog, or talk to your roommate or spouse. If someone interrupts you during House Hunters, no biggie. If he interrupts you during Season 3, Episode 11 of The Wire, he might end up like Stringer Bell.
And on those occasions when you turn on the television and stumble across something that captivates you, there’s a rush of serendipitous gratification that’s absent from the on-demand experience.
2. Channel surfing
Netflix is famous for the recommendation algorithms that continually point you to shows that people with your viewing habits tend to enjoy. The ads you see on free TV services like Hulu are narrowly targeted to a young, tech-savvy, budget-conscious audience. Whether you’re obsessed with understated detective shows orimaginative time-travel movies from the 1980s, the leading streaming services have so many options in your wheelhouse that it’s hard to remember there’s a whole, diverse world waiting outside it.
Channel-surfing, in contrast, exposes you to all sorts of serendipitous viewing experiences that would never have risen to the top of your Netflix queue. The other night on Sling TV, I absent-mindedly flipped to the Travel Channel and found some enterprising explorers pawing through the Peruvian Amazon in search of El Dorado. At just that moment, they pulled back some vines and gasped at a complex of ruins that may not have been seen by humans since the time of the Incas. Cool!
When that show ended, I moseyed over to ESPN2 and found my alma mater, Stanford, playing UCLA in college basketball. I had no idea they were playing, let alone on national TV. Unfortunately they were getting spanked. C’est la vie. Which brings me to the third nice thing about Sling TV and cable in general …
3. Live news and sports
I always knew forgoing cable would make it harder for me to watch live sporting events. What I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which my sports fandom as a whole would atrophy. When you can’t watch your favorite team on the tube each week, keeping up with its progress over the course of a season becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. Sure, you can still catch the occasional big game at a friend’s house or a sports bar, if you plan around it. But you’ve missed all the little games along the way that give the big one its emotional payoff.
The news is easier than sports to follow without a cable contract: It’s all over the Web, and these days you can get breaking news alerts and video clips in near real-time via your phone or Twitter. But when a huge story is breaking, there’s still no perfect substitute for the live coverage and running commentary you’ll find on a cable news channel like CNN. (That said, when the story is local, Sling TV won’t help you much. Let’s hope future Internet TV offerings find a way to include your network affiliates along with the cable offerings.)
And then there were the things I found I really hadn’t missed about cable TV. Stop me if they start to sound familiar:
1. Casual viewing
Watching television shows you don’t particularly care about can turn rather quickly from refreshing to soul-sapping. When you turn on the TV without a definite objective in mind, there’s no built-in endpoint to your viewing. It becomes tempting to just leave it on in the background rather than turning it off and moving on with your life. In the meantime, whole evenings can pass with nothing to show for them. If you aren’t careful, those evenings can become your nightly routine.
2. Channel surfing
Sure, if you haven’t watched cable in years, there’s a frisson of excitement each time you change the channel. The show you’re watching now might be crap, but entertainment gold might be lurking just a button-push away. That, of course, is the same sort of frisson that turns people into compulsive smokers and dead-eyed slot-machine addicts.
The other downside of channel-surfing, in multiperson households, is that it lends itself to petty disputes over who controls the remote. On Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, my wife and I long ago arrived via hard-won compromise at a set of shows that we’re each content to watch whenever the other wants to. Watching Sling TV forced us to relitigate our competing tastes and interests on a semihourly basis. We had both forgotten how exhausting that can be.
And the commercials! Especially the commercials that haunt random cable channels late at night. Christian Mingle. ZipRecruiter.com. Mesothelioma. The Law Offices of Dewey, Cheatem, & Howe. They were enough to make me nostalgic for Hulu to show me that same damn Geico “Push It” ad 13 times in the same half-hour episode.
3. Live news and sports
Turning on Sling TV and finding a random basketball game on ESPN was pretty cool the first few times. After a while, though, I found myself watching things like Cincinnati versus Southern Methodist out of sheer inertia. The reality is that there are only so many hours in your life, and sports are, by and large, a waste of them—especially when you’re watching them alone, slack-jawed, on your living room couch. Maybe being forced to socialize at a friend’s house or a sports bar for the few games you really care about is a blessing disguised as an inconvenience.
And while it’s great to be able to turn on CNN when Hurricane Sandy is ravaging the East Coast or revolutionaries are overrunning Tahrir Square, the reality is that the vast majority of CNN’s programming is just about as mindless and inessential as any other random TV program. “This is a blockbust-ah trial!” ranted the Anna Nicole Smith judge the other night on a Don Lemon segment devoted to second-guessing every aspect of the Aaron Hernandez case. Without cable, I had forgotten the Aaron Hernandez trial existed. And I’m pretty sure my life was richer for that.
At $20 a month, Sling TV is a pretty good deal for those who can’t afford cable but can’t live without ESPN. The product works smoothly and intuitively, the streaming quality is impressive, and the channel selection isn’t half bad, considering. The one question you should ask yourself before you buy it is: How much free time do I really have to kill?True, streaming TV brings pitfalls of its own, including the epic time-suck of binge-watching whole seasons of your favorite shows. But we cord-cutters should think twice when we daydream of having enough money to afford 180 channels of live TV.