A year ago, it was nearly unthinkable that you’d no longer need a cable or satellite subscription to get ESPN, HBO, Showtime, or TBS.
But this past year has seen more changes to the TV industry than the decade that preceded it.
An increasing number of people are choosing to cobble together their TV diet through a mix of online apps and services like HBO Now, Netflix, Hulu, and Showtime.
And we’re just getting started. Some of the biggest technology and media companies are challenging, or getting ready to challenge, traditional TV providers like Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner Cable.
Sling, a live TV streaming service from Dish, offers a good view of what live TV could look like for many people in the near future.
Because Sling streams live TV over the internet, you don’t need to install any equipment, like a cable box or satellite dish, in order to use it. Anyone in the US who has a high speed internet connection can subscribe to the service.
Sling TV, which is aimed at cord cutters, starts at $US20 per month for a core package of channels that includes ESPN, ESPN 2, TBS, TNT, and more. It’s much less expensive, and has fewer channels, than the typical cable bundle. You can also add on packages of sports, movie, kids, lifestyle, news, and Spanish language channels for $US5 each, or HBO for an additional $US15 per month.
Sling, which Dish announced in January, is available to watch on Apple and Android mobile devices as well as on PCs and TVs that have streaming devices like Roku or the Xbox One.
Although it’s a great alternative to cable, Sling isn’t, at least not yet, a replacement for many people who subscribe to TV from a company like Comcast or DirecTV.
The service doesn’t have a DVR and doesn’t have any local channels. It’s also had its share of hiccups — it’s had prominent outages during some live events, and some users report that it’s had other reliability issues — but the company says it’s working hard to improve the experience.
But it has given millions of Americans another option for TV.
Sony PlayStation Vue
Earlier this year, Sony unveiled PlayStation Vue, a live internet TV streaming TV service. Unlike Sling TV, which is available to anyone in the US with a high speed internet connection, Vue, at least for now, is only available in select cities, like Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Vue has more channels than Sling, and it’s priced more like a traditional cable or satellite package — plans start at $US49.99 per month for more than 50 channels.
It’s also only available to people who have PlayStation 3 or 4 game consoles.
The interface is fantastic — it will immediately be familiar to any PlayStation owner, and will likely pleasantly surprise people who for years have been used to clunky menus from a legacy TV provider. It also offers a virtual DVR so you can record shows and stream them back later.
Channels vary by where you live, but no plans have ESPN or any channels from Disney, ESPN’s parent company, which may be a deal breaker for some sports fans.
In March, the Wall Street journal reported that Apple is working on a live streaming TV service.
Apple hasn’t said anything about it, but there are plenty of clues and reports that suggest we could see an Apple-branded TV service launch next year.
According to the report in the Journal, the service will have around 25 channels, offering a smaller bundle than the typical TV package. The New York Times reported that the service would also cost less than a cable package — somewhere in the neighbourhood of $US20 to $US30 a month — and could include networks from Disney, Fox, and Discovery, among others.
Earlier this year, Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, said in an interview with Re/Code’s Kara Swisher that CBS had been talking with Apple about including the network on the service. More recently in an interview on Bloomberg, Moonves said that “something will happen” with Apple, but he doesn’t know when.
Re/Code also reported in May that Apple has been working on negotiating with local broadcast channels to include them in a service.
The new Apple TV box, which goes on sale later this month, is a natural home for a live TV service. Apple’s updated streaming box is built around Siri, and you can ask it advanced questions like “show me all of the James Bond movies with Sean Connery” or “show me animated TV shows for kids.” It’s easy to imagine asking Siri to do tasks like “DVR the next episode of the Daily Show,” or show you “what’s on ESPN right now.”
And iOS 9, the latest version of the mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads, also has a picture-in-picture mode for the iPad, which allows you to watch a live video while doing other tasks on the iPad. This would naturally work well with a live TV service.
Apple also recently drastically reduced the price of iCloud, its subscription-based cloud storage service. Apple could possibly use iCloud for a cloud-based DVR service that would allow consumers to record shows to watch later.
Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported earlier this month that Amazon is considering its own online TV service. The recent Bloomberg story built on a report in the Wall Street Journal from earlier last year, though according to Shaw, Amazon has spoken to NBC Universal and Comcast about including their networks on the service.
Amazon already offers a Netflix-like on-demand streaming service that comes as part of the company’s $US99 per year Prime loyalty program. Amazon also recently beefed up its own streaming device, the Fire TV, a natural home for such a service.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if other tech giants, such as Google or Microsoft, were also working on live TV services. The business opportunity is huge, and thanks to technological improvements in streaming and increasing internet speeds, consumers no longer have to rely on cable or satellite companies to bring them TV. (Though many do have to rely on cable companies for their broadband service.)
Google has built several platforms and devices, like Android TV, Google TV, and Chromecast, to stream Internet content to the TV. And Microsoft’s Xbox One and Surface tablets and laptops would be a natural home for a streaming service.
This is great for consumers
It may be difficult to find the exact service that fits your needs — you may not be able to replace your expensive cable or satellite package with one of these online service just yet.
Still, this migration of live TV to the internet is great for consumers.
For years, there have been very few options for people to get TV. The cable companies haven’t innovated because they haven’t been forced to — many people have ugly, clunky cable boxes, deal with unfriendly user interfaces and menus, have bad experiences with customer service, and pay a ridiculous amount each month for the privilege because there hasn’t been competition.
But TV delivered online removes the barriers. So as soon as a new online TV service launches — a Sling TV or a PlayStation Vue — a new competitor is created overnight. Imagine owning a smart TV or streaming box with three or four options for live TV instead of just one. You win.
And we can expect much more competition in the coming years.
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