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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 5, 2015 at 4:32 PM

CES: Cord-cutters’ wish for ESPN a la carte comes true

LAS VEGAS — In the race to make the biggest splash at CES, DISH took an early lead with its surprise announcement of a plan to make ESPN and other premium channels available without a cable plan.

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ESPN has been the glue that kept many customers stuck to traditional cable and satellite plans, despite enticing new options for “cutting the cord” and getting video from a mix of other sources.

Now ESPN will be available through a $20-per-month streaming-video package that DISH subsidiary Sling will begin offering this quarter. (Image above courtesy of ESPN.)

Called Sling TV, it’s a month-to-month service with no contract requirements and no hardware to install. The service is available via streaming media devices such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV boxes and sticks. It will also work with some “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung; PCs; Macs and devices running iOS and Android. Additional supported devices will be announced later this year.

Microsoft’s Xbox One will be the first game console to handle the service. It will offer Xbox Live members a free month’s trial subscription when Sling TV is available “in coming weeks,” a spokeswoman said via email.

Xbox owners have long been able to stream ESPN to their consoles, but only if they subscribe to a traditional cable plan that includes the channel.

In addition to ESPN and ESPN2, Sling TV includes TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family and CNN.

Sling TV will also offer $5 per month add-on packages with additional cable channels.

It’s an exciting development for sports fans looking to “cut the cord” but they’ll need to look carefully at the costs. Broadband service will still be required and a broadband bundle with traditional cable and far more channels may not cost that much more than standalone broadband plus Sling TV. But the latter shouldn’t nickel and dime subscribers with various fees and equipment costs.

Sports fans might also consider combining Sling TV with free over-the-air broadcast channels. If they’re cheapskates and want ESPN for a particular sport, they could subscribe to Sling TV only during the season of their preferred sport and have pretty good TV service for under $100 per year.

Even if Sling TV doesn’t appeal, the service should pressure cable companies to offer more flexible and affordable options to their subscribers. On the flip side, it could prompt Comcast and others to clamp down on monthly bandwidth limits, lessening the appeal of streaming services such as Sling TV and Netflix.

DISH also announced that it will begin selling “Joey” set-top devices to handle 4K video in the home. Perhaps that will be the next hurdle for cord-cutters — getting ultra high-definition TV channels a la carte.

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