Sling and the Overdue Death of Network TV


I gave away my last television in 2005. It wasn’t a financial decision or some act of principle. Nor was I trying to spare kids from a prime-time diet of violence and sex (I’ve clawed a tenuous beachhead into bachelorhood thus far).

It was a junkie going cold turkey. I just loved TV too damned much.

I spent the seventies and eighties captive to television, logging more hours peeled to a CRT than most air traffic controllers with an alcohol problem. By age nine I had seen every late movie broadcast on Philadelphia stations between 1975 and 1978, mainly due to my mother working until 2am as a waitress and my aging father being an early-to-bed type.

This warps a little dude. I knew Darren McGavin better than my third-grade teacher. I would’ve recognized Warren Oates in a parking lot at 400 feet. I wasn’t a wanderer in the wasteland; I was a native. Had we been one of the “80-channel” houses, I’d probably be in an asylum now babbling to myself while scribbling letters to Ann Jillian’s character on It’s a Living.

High school and college forced a reluctant semi-weening, when other obligations made 11 daily viewing hours impractical. But the drug never disappeared; a house without a blaring television always made me wonder if a wake was going on in the next room.

When my work-a-day routine solidified into the familiar home-at-seven-frozen-dinner-by-eight existence by my mid twenties, I resumed my habit, spending large blocks of time in front of the RCA or Magnavox or Sanyo, watching anything it displayed without particular care, monitoring the colors and human puppetry that kept worries from germinating.

By my mid thirties, in 2005, I was freelancing full-time in Manhattan and realized that I had a problem. Namely, I couldn’t watch enough television to render myself sufficiently catatonic while still managing to feed myself. Without the constraints of an office—where keeping one eye on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father during a conversation with my boss could be a liability—working at home meant no consumption limit. I could use from morning til night like a meth addict with unusually dull stories (unless the topic of Bob Crane came up). An intervention was needed.

I cancelled cable as a first measure.

It didn’t work.

2.

I missed South Park, but loving television means having no standards, so I was almost equally gripped by The New Munsters, infomercials on Tupperware-like containers with incredible nesting capabilities and content of significantly lesser quality. Moving to a new apartment during the summer-replacement season gave me the impetus to finally kill the three-networked monkey; I gifted away the big TV and didn’t buy a new one after I moved. It was like a transporter accident on Star Trek.

To my astonishment, I only briefly missed television.

Radio, theater movies and bar-stool time quickly replaced the tube god. What was out of sight remained out of life for twelve years. A dozen years in which words like “Olympic simulcast,” Walter White and Peter Dinklage might as well have been Chaucer Englyshe, because I was no longer privy to any of the goings-on at the digital campfire.

Overall, I was better for it. I got more work done, probably had a bit more sex, and at least occasionally made conversation while killing liver cells with tap beer rather than isolating on a couch with ecologically harmful cans.

Recently, though, in my mid forties, I began missing my addiction anew. Not for the sleep-destroying watch-a-thons. Not for sports, which I long ago let slide from my life (I’m a born Philadelphia fan). But for news.

Feeling unplugged no longer felt liberated. It felt alienated. Since 2005 I had rationalized that anything of importance would quickly bubble up to me, and I could see presidential speeches and debates and other things a responsible person should digest at my leisure. Of course, commentary got to me ahead of these viewings, tainting what I saw.

I didn’t really care about that until 2016.

3.

After last year’s national cavalcade of horrors, abstaining from TV no longer seemed tenable. I needed to amble back to the digital campfire regularly if I wanted to make a clear-headed judgment on anything of consequence that had its origin there. And, hell, maybe getting sucked into a decent show occasionally wouldn’t kill me, if I rationed my viewing like a sensible middle-aged creature.

So when I moved from New York to San Diego in January 2017, I decided to ease back into TV like an AA veteran sipping a thimble of Thunderbird. I wouldn’t purchase a proper television or, God forbid, get cable again. The first just isn’t necessary for TV viewing in 2017, and the second, for Christ’s sakes, should not be.

I would simply watch live television on my laptop.

Meaning, I’d simply tap one of the many, many streaming services that must surely exist now to make watching TV via Wi-Fi on any computer easy and affordable.

Because in this day of miracle and blunder, 25 years into a cyber-connected world, surely a man with an unmaxed credit card can pay something to NBC, PBS, CNN, SyFy or whatever the frig to stream a live signal directly to his laptop, like just about every radio station on the planet.

Surely.

Except he can’t.

Not without it being a more convoluted pain in the ass than that man would possibly expect.

As you may know, streaming live television is still a bridge too far for most TV networks. They remain tangled in complicated agreements with frightfully large cable providers like Comcast and Time Warner, and protected—or hamstrung, depending on your point of view—by dusty laws from the medium’s infancy meant to stop interlopers from catapulting Lucy and Ricky to TVs in the west before local stations could air the show. Cagey challenges have been defeated as recently as 2014, when Barry Diller’s ill-fated Aereo was shot down by the Supreme Court. As of now, truly independent, pay-the-network-directly streaming is still limited to a few traditional cable players, like HBO.

Most workarounds to get TV on your laptop still suck. Free stations can still be free-ish on a computer—if you insert that asinine tuner doohickey into your USB port and happen to be in one of the eight U.S. towns where an antenna works.

For $6 a month, you can stream CBS live to your laptop—if you’re one of the 150 markets they currently service. Otherwise, click the “Stream Live” button on most other network sites, like CNN, and you’ll be asked to enter your cable subscription number.

Services that require devices like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Playstation Vue can all kiss my ass because I have two Mac laptops that stream live video perfectly well, so I know I don’t need another piece of equipment. (This is indeed an obstinate point of principle with me.) I travel frequently and want to watch TV on both of my laptops using nothing more than Wi-Fi.

This irrational ask leaves just two choices: Sling TV or AT&T’s DirecTV Now.

I tried both.

They’re similar in function and design, but I found AT&T’s product far buggier and more cumbersome than Sling TV. And at $35 versus $20 a month for the entry-level plans, DirecTV Now costs $180 more a year. Finally, it made my Mac’s fan race like the processor was crunching on a Higgs boson experiment.

The choice wasn’t hard.

4.

If you’re the odd sort of duck who doesn’t own a television, you could call Sling “cable lite for laptops,” which is exactly what I was looking for. Most people are familiar with the service by now; it lets you stream 30 to about 45 channels for $20 to $40 a month. Conceptually, it’s like Netflix except the little squares cough up live TV. As mentioned, there’s no equipment to buy if you only want to watch it on a computer or Internet connected device, like a tablet. (If you want to beam it to a real television, you’ll need a streaming device like an Amazon Fire, Roku or others mentioned above.)

If your Internet signal is powerful, Sling TV works passably well—at least if you’re grading on the ridiculously generous curve we give laptops and cell phones. I get a few unexpected quits or perplexed black screens every hour or two, so it’s far balkier than a conventional TV with cable.

For people accustomed to Netflix, one fundamental limitation of Sling immediately feels jarring and archaic: it’ll let you scroll through a network’s entire weekly schedule, but when you inevitably click on a show that’s airing in the future—in five minutes or next week—you’re reminded that it’s “upcoming” and unavailable to view.

I found myself getting weirdly indignant at this, especially when I was clicking on an old rerun of The Twilight Zone or another show that was equally not new. Why are you keeping Andy Griffith from me? I’m clicking on this ancient show—just make it play! It continually took a few nanoseconds for me to realize that I was bringing 2017 expectations to the 1950s reality Sling was operating under; the ancient rerun I wanted wasn’t “on” yet.

I felt like a three-year old pushing a finger across a People magazine as if it was an iPad, trying to make the stupid thing work. Knowing I could probably keep clicking around to find this 50-year old program On Demand didn’t help at all; tapping dead center on the desired square to no effect was like Jeeves giving me the finger.

5.

Similar to Netflix, Sling TV lays its entire watchable offerings in horizontal bars, including both what’s “on now” and each network’s upcoming lineup, allowing you to scan all program options fairly quickly. As “changing channels” takes more effort on Sling than it does when you’re simply clicking a TV remote, each click begs for wee bit more scrutiny. As a result, I do no passive channel surfing when using the service; there’s almost nil chance I’ll serendipitously land on something interesting in a program I’d otherwise pass over.

In use, this means each network’s major helping of low-quality, repetitive content is laid naked at once to would-be surfers who are more engaged than they would be if lazily eyeballing a program schedule elsewhere. So scrolling on Sling significantly speeds the familiar journey to disappointment ending in “there’s nothing good on” (or “I’ve seen all this,” which Netflixers know well).

Further, unlike Netflix, Sling doesn’t spare you from commercials—which feel endlessly long to me after watching commercial-free shows and movies for a decade.

6.

In sum, Sling’s functionality and design ironically highlight network television’s three legacy weaknesses: it’s still largely bound to artificial schedules that can only be partially offset with workarounds (like DVRing, which Sling may offer soon), it still serves up 20 parts crap for every occasional gem, and it still needs you to buy Tide to keep the shows on. Seeing television’s oldest shortcomings baked into a digital product makes them feel more flagrant, more insultingly last-century.

It’s the result of a May-December mix. I have certain expectations when I’m in front of a television with a remote control, and quite different expectations when I’m clicking on a laptop. Sling attempts to meld these two realms, and most small frustrations with its user experience stem to this wonky marriage. The core failure, however, is network television’s inability to break away from creaky paradigms installed when six channels felt gluttonous.

7.

After twelve years away from television, it’s an understatement to say I expected TV networks and Internet streaming services to be further along in cooperation. The few options available feel primitive and devoid of capabilities that seem like layups in the post “there’s an app for that” universe. Lineups tailored to your preferences, a la carte channel purchasing that gets rid of forced bundling from the 1970s, fee structures that eliminate commercials…a long list of such features should be commonplace now among device-free streaming options for live television. None are. Which bites.

That’s mostly why Sling feels anticlimactic, as if it should have launched during Obama’s first term. Like me, most Americans who’ve Googled “How can I stream live TV?” in the last several years were probably surprised to find that capitalism hasn’t yielded multiple competing options yet. Several scam sites that claim to offer live TV streams still ride on that disbelief.

Consequently, Sling seems like it’s late to a party that never got started. Paying for it feels like shelling out dough for a neat flip phone of sorts; it performs its task, but you can’t shake the feeling that something much better ought to be in its place by now.

A few friends who’ve tried Sling cancelled it within weeks due to its persistent hiccups and buffering. After a month, I’ve thought of cancelling for a reason that’s harder to fix. In whole, live-broadcast TV is just as time wasting as it was when I left it back in 2005, and just as loaded with mediocrity—despite all the “golden age” hooey thrown around about series that are much better binge-watched.

But I’m stuck with Sling for now. I want live news, and it’s currently the only reasonable option to get the local NBC affiliate and CNN on my Mac, for two measly examples. I’m not a happy Sling customer; I’m resentful that this is the only answer to a problem that should’ve been solved and dead by 2010. I’ll jump ship as soon as an option emerges that’s 1) even slightly less glitchy and 2) offers some of the features I’ve mentioned above.

It’s a chicken-and-egg debate as to whether consumers truly drive evolution in technology, but we’ve given television some queer free pass to remain in the clunky past. God knows why. Speaking as a child of the 80s, if Atari didn’t deserve that odd gift, the TV industry sure as hell doesn’t.

 


Top image: Wikimedia Commons

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