“Skinny” is the new buzzword for cable/satellite providers. With the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video that offer a wide array of TV content for a low monthly cost, an ever-increasing number of TV fans are being tempted to cut the cord and say goodbye to cable/satellite companies and their expensive channel bundles. People have grown tired of paying for a lot of channels they don’t watch and being locked into long-term contracts to do so. The pressure is on the cable/satellite companies to slim things down or keep losing ground.
The one ace that cable/satellite providers, also known as Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs), still have in their pocket is live TV. Some people, myself included, just don’t want to give up the live TV experience. In my case, that’s due mainly to sports. For others, it might be the social element of watching their favorite shows live and interacting in the moment with other fans, either through social media or (gasp!) in person. Using an over-the-air antenna is an option to get live access to the major broadcast networks, but it’s not going to help you with Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, or The Walking Dead. It’s also not always the most reliable option, depending on where you live and how easy it is to tune in an over-the-air signal.
Many of the major MVPDs–as well as other tech companies that would like to compete in the space–have heard your cries to bust the bundle and provide lower-priced packages with fewer (but good!) channels. Many a negotiation has gone on behind closed doors, but the studios and networks have been highly reluctant to give up ground. For one thing, a true “a la carte” system likely spells death for many of the smaller channels. But also, with large conglomerates owning multiple big-name properties, it’s hard to convince them to break things up. For instance, it’s hard to get the ABC or Disney family of channels without getting the ESPN networks, and that’s where the cost increases come.
With that being said, we have finally seen meaningful breakthroughs in the past couple of years that have led to the availability of a few compelling, lower-priced “skinny” TV bundles…with more on the horizon. I’ve highlighted some current and proposed options below. As you’ll see, some of the options seem a bit emaciated; others have some real meat on their bones; and at least one probably needs to diet a bit longer before it’s truly ready for prime time, so to speak.
Dish Network / Sling
Dish Network has arguably been the most successful thus far in the quest to create skinny bundles. The company drew a lot of attention at CES 2015 when it first announced the Sling Internet TV service, which at launch gave you 14 channels (including ESPN and Disney) for $20/month. Sling TV–which is a separate entity from Dish Network–has evolved and expanded quite a bit since we first reviewed it in February 2015. The base package, which is now called Sling Orange, includes 25+ channels and is still just $20/month. The Sling Blue package offers 40+ channels for $25, while the Orange+Blue package gives you all channels for $40. Plus, you can still mix and match smaller add-on packs, and there’s no long-term contract. But remember, Sling TV is an Internet-based streaming service, which means you have to factor in the cost of high-speed Internet.
Recently, Dish Network also announced its own skinny satellite TV package, called Flex Pack. For $29.99/month, you get 50+ channels. For $39.99, you get those channels plus one “themed” channel pack, such as the Locals Pack, Kids Pack, Regional Action Pack, or News Pack. You can add more themed packs as desired, with prices ranging from $4 to $10 per month. And there’s no long-term contract.
Sony originally launched its PlayStation Vue Internet TV service in March of 2015, but only in select major markets like New York and Chicago. Now, PlayStation Vue is available nationwide to owners of PlayStation 3 or 4 consoles, and there’s an app for Amazon Fire TV and Roku players. The base package, called Access Slim, offers 55+ channels for $29.99/month. The Core Slim package offers 70+ channels for $34.99/month, and the Elite Slim package offers 100+ channels for $44.99. You can add premium channels like Showtime or NFL RedZone during football season. Like Sling TV, this is an Internet-based streaming service, so you need a high-speed broadband connection.
AT&T / DirecTV
Earlier this year, AT&T announced that it was developing its own Internet-based live TV service to compete against Sling TV. Called DirecTV Now, the service will offer a combination of on-demand content and live programming from “many networks,” plus the option to add premium channels. FierceCable reports that AT&T has secured licensing rights to more than 100 channels; deals are already in place with NBC Universal, HBO, ESPN, and Discovery Communications. The service is supposed to launch before year’s end, but I haven’t seen any further specifics about pricing, exact channel lineup, or official launch date.
Verizon first announced its scaled-down FiOS TV bundles in April of 2015. The company offers two base packages called Custom TV Essentials and Custom TV Sports & More, with the ability to add on packs like Movie Lovers Pack, Global Sports Pack, and Kids, Teen & Family Pack. The thing is, both Custom TV packages start at $64.99/month for 70+ channels, which isn’t exactly skinny in comparison to the services described above. It’s only $10 cheaper than Verizon’s lowest-tier traditional TV package that has a lot more channels, and a bunch of ancillary charges are hidden in there, too.
Comcast’s Xfinity Stream TV Internet-based service offers the major broadcast networks plus HBO channels for just $15/month. Unfortunately, there are two big catches right now: You must have Xfinity Internet in your home to stream the service, and it’s only available in select areas in the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Hampshire.
Time Warner Cable
According to FierceCable, TWC has offered a similarly skinny bundle option to some new customers: sign up for the company’s $39.99/month 50-Mbps broadband service, and get the major broadcast networks, plus HBO and Showtime, for $10/month.
Hulu has confirmed that it is assembling an Internet-based live TV package that will complement, not replace, its current on-demand service. Back in June, Cord Cutters News reported on some possible aspects of the new Hulu live TV service. Based on surveys that Hulu sent to some subscribers, it looks like there could be two core packages, priced at $34.99 and $49.99 for 60+ channels, with the option to add premium channels like HBO or Showtime and/or themed packs.
Not to be left in the shadows, YouTube is also working on an Internet-based live TV service. According to Bloomberg, the service is called “Unplugged” and should arrive in 2017. Additional reports suggest that the service could be priced around $35 and at least include ABC, ESPN, and CBS.
Back in February, The Motley Fool reported that Amazon was also in negotiations to add a live TV element to its $99/year Prime streaming service. AMC and Disney/ESPN were two companies that mentioned being in talks with Amazon at the time, but we have not heard anything further.
Apple really hoped to get into the TV game with its own Internet-based live streaming service. Many believed the service would launch in fall of 2014, but it kept being delayed. Then, in late 2015, Bloomberg announced that Apple had officially put the plan on hold. Reportedly, Apple was trying to create a package of “14 or so channels for $30 to $40 per month” and just couldn’t make the deals happen to hit that price point.
That’s the overview of some major developments in the quest for skinny TV bundles. Have you tried Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, or one of the other new offerings? What’s the magic price/channel combination that would finally convince you to go skinny? Let us know in the Comments section below.
• My Search for Higher-Quality Soundtracks in Streaming Movies at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Five Questions to Consider Before Cutting the Cord at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• The Great “Voice Search” Face Off at HomeTheaterReview.com.