When skinny bundles—or Virtual Multi- channel Video Programming Distribu- tors (vMVPDs)—finally started appearing, I knew there was no way I could cut the cord
just yet. None of them offered DVR functionality,
and I was completely in love with the DVR experience. I hadn’t watched live TV in years. Skinny bundles were all about live content. It would
take time for them to figure it out, I thought.
Then all of the skinny bundles offered cloud
DVRs seemingly overnight. Cloud DVRs are even
better than hardware DVRs, since you can tap
into your recordings from any device.
But there’s still one area where bundles fall
down, and that’s in local programming and live
sports. While it’s important to offer a collection
of popular basic cable channels, it’s also important to have the major networks.
Getting access to local channels is a lot more
complicated than getting access to cable channels. Different local affiliates have different owners, and deals often have to be worked out one
at a time. The skinny bundles have made good
progress here, with most of them offering most
local channels in most markets.
Of course, “most” isn’t good enough if your favorite show isn’t supported and you really want
to watch it live. I reached out to representatives
for DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live TV, Sling TV, and
YouTube TV to ask how potential customers
could learn what local channels were supported before they signed up. All four have areas on
their sites where people can look up local channels, typically with a ZIP code search. The Hulu
tool at go2sm.com/hululive tells me I’ll get local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, plus a few smaller options. The DIRECTV NOW tool tells me the same.
Sling TV is missing CBS in my area, and ABC
isn’t available in either the company’s Orange
or Blue packages, but it’s available as a “
broadcast extra” in some markets. You Tube TV offers
a list that explains how most of its networks are
available in most areas, but then offers many exceptions where only on-demand network programming is supported.
Skinny bundle providers must know how un-
satisfying this all is, but perhaps they don’t think
it matters to many viewers. For households that
keep their cable or satellite accounts, local chan-
nels are not an issue. The rep for Sling TV sug-
gested pairing its service with an over-the-air
antenna. During the Olympics, Sling TV had a
note on its site directing people to buy antennas
if they live in an area where the service doesn’t
provide NBC. To me, that takes all the simplic-
ity out of over-the-top (OTT) delivery.
But at least skinny bundle providers offer
some information about local channels. There’s
a deeper problem with live sports, and the pro-
viders don’t seem to be in any hurry to fix it. Just
because subscribers can stream local channels
is no guarantee they can watch all of the games
those channels carry. Blackout rules and plat-
form exclusives often prevent the bundles from
streaming standard over-the-air games.
Worse, there’s no way to learn what games
are supported before signing up. The only option
is to sign up and then try to tune in. I’m not even
a sports fan, and I find it galling that the skinny
bundle providers don’t do more to help people
learn what content they’ll get ahead of time.
When I posed this problem to reps from the
top four skinny bundles, all said there wasn’t a
way to monitor sports programming ahead of
time. One suggested viewers take advantage of
trial periods: Sign up for a trial account, search
for favorite teams and leagues, and cancel the
trial if you don’t see what you want.
That’s a pretty kludgy way to do it, and I’m
shocked at how poor the experience is. One per-
son connected to this industry told me that the
networks are responsible for blackouts and of-
ten change online access with little or no notice.
With that kind of uncertainly, the bundles don’t
want to promise access they can’t guarantee.
I get that the skinny bundle companies are
in a difficult position, but it’s one they’re going
to have to solve—and fast—if they want to be a
no-compromise alternative to pay TV.
Troy Dreier ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior associate
editor of Streaming Media and Onlinevideo.net.
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Catering to Cord Cutters