One of the biggest hassles for cord-cutters — aside from constantly forgetting their parents’ HBO Go passwords — is having to switch back and forth between devices when they want to watch channels offered on different services. Between Rokus, Apple TVs, Amazon Fires and antennas, the simple act of watching TV is somehow more complicated than it was 50, or even five, years ago.
While there is no immediate remedy to this frustrating dance of content discovery, Dish Network’s Sling TV may be closer to bridging the gap. In collaboration with EchoStar, the streaming TV service is reportedly preparing to launch a device that would integrate over-the-air local broadcast networks with Sling TV’s bundle of cable channels. If true, the device could be a game-changer for TV viewers without a traditional pay TV subscription, eliminating the pain point of having to toggle between devices when viewing cable versus broadcast networks.
Details of the device, dubbed “AirTV,” were leaked to Dave Zatz, a blogger who covers cable technology, who reported last week that the unit would likely use Slingbox technology and would allow users to hook up a digital antenna for over-the-air broadcast integration. Sling TV already offers a core package of cable channels for $20, in addition to a number of add-on packages. Combining the service with broadcast TV would all but eliminate the need for cable.
A Sling TV spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
As streaming TV services have proliferated over the last year, figuring out how to include local broadcast networks has proved one of the biggest obstacles for companies wanting to offer a true “over the top” TV experience. Apple Inc. last year reportedly put its streaming-TV plans on hold after it was unable to successfully negotiate the necessary content deals with local broadcast affiliates. Other attempts to offer live TV over the internet have ended in disaster, notably Chet Kanojia’s Aereo, which was sued into oblivion by the major broadcasters who accused the service of violating their copyrights. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
But Aereo was the result of technical sleight of hand — the company used a network of mini antennas to capture broadcast signals and retransmit them to people’s computers, a process the courts classified as a “public performance” for which the broadcasters deserved to be paid. There is nothing illegal about using your own antenna to watch broadcast TV for free. In fact, one in seven households still rely exclusively on them for TV programming, according to a 2013 study by the Consumer Electronics Association.
A simple hybrid solution like AirTV would make sense for Sling. The service represents an important part of Dish Network’s future, but it has struggled to attract or retain the large numbers of subscribers some optimists had predicted. (Analysts peg the number at around 500,000 to 600,000.) As such, Sling has been aggressively adding new content and add-on packages to make itself more attractive, most recently launching a beta multi-stream service that includes content from Fox broadcasting. But the big three broadcasters remain conspicuously absent. (ABC broadcast content is available on Sling in select markets as part of the “Broadcast Extra” add-on package, a Sling spokeswoman pointed out.)
What remains unclear is if a service like AirTV would incur the wrath of those broadcasters, which raked in an estimated $6.3 billion in retransmission fees last year, and whose business models are increasingly dependent on being able to charge pay TV operators for their content.
Dish Network, which reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday, has been hemorrhaging subscribers in its core satellite-TV business. Last summer, the company began including Sling TV subscribers in its quarterly reports, but it does not break out the numbers separately.