Want live TV over the internet? Today you have several options, including Hulu, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, and more. It’s hard to remember, though, but there was a time when there were virtually no options for consumers who wanted to cut the cord. Sure, services like Netflix and Vudu provided plenty of titles on demand, but current content was scattered across myriad websites and services, and it didn’t do a good job of replicating the TV experience.
One of the key people behind the service is Jimshade Chaudhari, Sling TV’s vice president of product marketing and management. Chaudhari dropped by Mashable’s MashTalk podcast for a to dive deep into the state of internet TV, discussing how Sling differentiates from the now-crowded playing field, whether we’ll ever get rid of program guides, and why everything isn’t just on demand already?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pete Pachal: How long have you been with Dish?
Jimshade Chaudhari: About eight years. I started on the Dish side of the business, and then moved over to Sling back in 2015 when we launched.
PP: Were you involved with the launch?
JC: I was involved with the launch. At that point, I was on the Dish side, I was working on our TV Everywhere services, which was how you were able to view your content online and mobile devices. That was one of the precursors [to Sling TV] along with another service we had called DishWorld which was actually a live streaming service that focused on international content. That’s what morphed into what people know today as Sling TV.
I didn’t know that. OK, so DishWorld, that was more targeted at people who wanted to see international content here in the States?
Correct. So you probably weren’t the target demographic.
I wasn’t looking for Russian soccer games or whatever they’re doing. Obviously [Sling TV and DishWorld] very different products. What translated?
A lot of it was the technology. This was a product that was available on Samsung TVs and on Roku devices. It was an app, like Sling TV is an app. We learned a little bit about consumer behavior there, but a lot of it was really kicking the tires on the technology. The internet was never designed for streaming live video content.
I think most people assume, because of the name “Sling,” that “Oh this grew out of the Slingbox.
As people in the industry, we’re all familiar with Slingbox. The masses really weren’t familiar with Slingbox. Sling was a new name for them. We’ve actually turned it into a verb, right? If you’ve seen our latest commercials we have a concept called “slinging” where how people are cutting the cord and adopting the slinging lifestyle right, getting the freedom and choice that comes with watching video on Sling TV versus their traditional paid TV provider.
Slingbox allowed you to have some freedom and control of your viewing experience even when you’re outside your home, which is a lot of what Sling TV allows people to do. Even though the technology is very different — there’s no hardware [with Sling TV] — but the concept of being able to take your content with you on the go was similar between Slingbox and Sling TV.
It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Everyone thought of it as the dream, but no one quite knew how to do it, ’cause it seemed dangerous. Basically nobody wanted to get sued, but [Slingbox] seemed to figure out how to thread that needle in a way and get at least people talking about this, influencers talking about this. Like, “Hey, why can’t we figure this out?” and they helped chart this path.
They were ahead of their time in terms of seeing where consumer engagement with video is going. Consumer needs and wants were evolving, people wanted to access content outside of their home, and even outside of their local territory. One of the big use cases back then for Slingbox was watching your local sports team when you weren’t in the same state or the same city
But that was a completely different hardware-based solution. Unless you were really a geeky early adopter, you didn’t know what Slingbox was. At a consumer electronics show, we would have a couple hardcore Slingbox fans come to us and say, “Oh is this the next evolution.” We’re like, “No, this is much better.”
How big is Sling TV now?
We were the first ones out the gate back in 2015. We basically defined a live OTT streaming space, and we’re still the leader. We have 2.344 million customers as of last quarter.
Do you measure that as active users, or subscribers?
Paying subscribers. A couple services are close to a million; a lot of services are much lower than a million. We have people using our app across all the popular platforms that are out there from Roku to Amazon to Xbox, etc. Obviously we were at zero back in 2015 — to get to over two million is pretty substantial growth for us.
This space is still really nascent. A lot of people, they’ve heard the term “cord cutting,” but don’t really know what that means or how to do it. A lot of our time has been educating people on, what is cord cutting? What is Sling TV? What are the options out there that aren’t traditional? And the competition actually helps from that standpoint.
What would you say are Sling TV’s main points of differentiation from major players like PlayStation Vue, Hulu, YouTube TV, and others?
What we’ve seen is a lot of [competitors] have replicated the model of traditional paid TV. There’s a big, bigger, biggest bundle, and you have to pay for a lot of channels that you’re not watching.
We’ve actually completely changed that paradigm. What we do is we offer people the opportunity to come in and buy a base pack. We have two base packs called Orange and Blue that are $25, but then if you’re a sports fan, you can add on a sports pack. If you’re a news junkie, you can add on the news pack. You don’t have to pay for channels that you’re not watching. It’s not the big, bigger, biggest bundle, which a lot of the other players in the space have taken.
We offer our cloud DVR to our customers, but we don’t include it with everyone because we don’t want to charge everyone and raise the price. For the people who really want that, they can pay for it. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to pay for it, and you can still pay that $25 price.
So you can customize the service so you’re not wasting money on something that you never use.
A lot of people, you hear, “Hey I’m paying for 100 channels, but I’m watching seven of them.” And people’s needs change based on seasonality. Football season right now is a huge season for us — you see a ton of people adding the sports pack. Once football goes away and maybe Game of Thrones comes on or Walking Dead is back, we see people shifting packages and different extras and add-ons based on the time of year. It’s that control: Don’t be locked into things that you don’t care about.
Is that how the slogan came about? I see it on the app it’s “À la carte TV.”
Letting you pick and choose what’s most important to you, and give you that control back — you don’t see that with other services. The tagline something we’ve used for a couple years, but it’s really based on the control and that choice.
Do you get nitpickers going, “Well it’s not really ‘à la carte’ because I can’t actually go down to the channel level and pick this and that?
There’s a minority of people who say, “True à la carte would be I would pay for every single channel I wanted.” From a consumer perspective, people fail to realize sometimes that by going on a channel-by-channel basis, your aggregate amount that you would pay might be more than what you get as a discount with a bundle. Honestly, where we are from an industry perspective, we are the closest thing to à la carte TV.
Do you think we’ll ever get to true à la carte as a thing at least as an option?
I wouldn’t say never, but I don’t see it in the near future.
When you do an over-the-top live service, how do you think [about apps] differently? What are some fundamental first principles that you come in with?
One thing I want to clarify: Sling is definitely a live OTT streaming service, but we also have 80,000 on-demand assets. There’s a paradigm for on-demand streaming services like Netflix, but we are the first one that was combining live and on-demand into the same application, and so one of the trickiest parts was how do you do that?
There’s, if you think about Netflix or on-demand applications, you just see carousels of content and you browse through thumbnails. So when we first launched, we were focused on cord-nevers — people who had never paid for traditional paid TV — and we thought they would skew younger were used to the browsing experience of on-demand content. So, we created a home screen called MyTV and we made everything kind of thumbnail based.
Then what we realized was those people found value in our service but we were getting a lot of people that were cord-cutters. They were used to traditional paid TV, and what we kept hearing was, “I just want a guide.” Even though the grid guide has been around for a really long time, that habit is so strong in people that that’s where they gravitated towards.
So about a year later we launched a grid guide. And honestly, I was shocked at the fanfare we got on social media. But that’s how traditional paid TV customers find content.
Is there like a killer feature that you hold up for reluctant cord-cutters?
Well, it’s usually not a feature that begins that conversation. It’s cost. When they realize the amount of money that they’ll save and that they’ll have the same content that they had before, but they have the flexibility of choosing what device they want to watch it on and not having to pay a device fee every month, that’s usually the thing that gets them really interested.
What are the average cost savings for someone cutting the cord? Because the thing is with all this cord-cutting, you’re still paying for your broadband internet.
It’s a tricky number to throw out there because it really depends on the situation. The way I would think about broadband is you’re going to have broadband regardless if you had an OTT streaming service or not.
True, but you also got to factor in the triple-play packages. If you do traditional cable, it’s only whatever, $50, $60 more to get everything.
You’re right — the triple play, the quadruple play for a lot of people, they discount video very heavily because they make all their money on broadband. But at the end of the day for a consumer, the video component of it like with Sling, we make it easy to drop in and out based on seasonality. So you’re probably not paying the same fixed cost.
If you think of how people are cobbling together like their OTT solution, they’ll take a service like Sling and then they’ll complement it with a service like Netflix, or they might sign up for a service that’s more seasonal. When Game of Thrones comes around, they might just sign up for HBO and then they might drop it. So their bill isn’t fixed.
So in terms of a savings, like I said, coming up with a accurate number is tough because it depends on what your needs are, or if you have a household that has different interests. But from a typical cable and satellite bill that’s north of $100, $120 to coming down to $25, that’s a pretty big savings. But like you said, the internet has to be factored into that.
One of the big selling points of Sling TV is it’s cross-platform. It’s on everything. I’ve got to think like to make sure the user experience is good on all those platforms is a nightmare.
It’s not an easy problem to solve. To your point, there’s a lot of fragmentation. We’re on 15 different platforms. We try to reuse common code wherever possible and try to put more of the logic into the back-end of the systems so that clients are a little bit lighter on the different devices, but it’s definitely a challenge.
From a customer experience standpoint, what we’ve seen is a lot of our customers that watch on a Roku device, they’ll also watch on mobile, but they’re not going to watch on a Roku and another 10-foot device like an Amazon. So consistency for the sake of the consistency is not that important to us. It’s really more important that people should always know that they’re in a Sling experience.
So, the content is the same across devices. The way you access your Cloud DVR is the same. The tabs that we have or the sections of the app are the same. So if customers, there’s no learning curve from going from one device to another.
How do you think about voice?
Voice is going to be important, but it hasn’t been optimized for a video experience. We’ve seen some experiences launch and if you’re watching video you can say “Pause” or “Fast Forward.” Or if you’re thinking about a carousel of content, picking up your remote and hitting the D-pad two or three times to get to the right versus saying “Next Item, next item, next item.” So, we think, look, voice is catching on, but it still needs to be optimized for that video experience.
I think Search is probably the best use case for it. Typing with the remote in a virtual keyboard is painful. Voice is a much easier input. Voice is going to be important for us; we just don’t think it’s at a point right now where it’s one of our top priorities.
I want to get your perspective on cloud DVRs. They’re great, but if you think about it for a couple of minutes, you think, “Why isn’t everything just on the DVR?” Why is it, once something’s broadcast, it’s not just on a cloud DVR as an on-demand asset to everybody?
The way a cloud DVR legally has to work isn’t the most efficient because we have to keep a single copy for every user that’s recorded it. And that’s not a technological issue, that’s just a legal copyright issue.There’s definitely more efficient ways to do it. On-demand rights are very different than getting live rights and so. In an ideal world, everything’s on demand, and you wouldn’t have to record things.
The fact that if you watch something on demand you can’t fast forward through commercials and on a DVR you can. It’s less about the technology limitations and it’s more about the content rights and legal implications around a cloud DVR. So, do I think it’s gonna change? Maybe, but a cloud DVR’s still a relatively new concept, and people have implemented it in different ways. So, we’ll have to see how it kinda shakes out.
Have there been any other surprising insights you’ve gotten from your customers?
One of the things that was, I think, a little bit shocking to us was there’s so much talk in the industry about “mobile first.” Everything’s mobile first, everybody wants to be mobile first.
We realized, is people still watch a lot of their TV at home. They gravitate towards the biggest screen that’s available to them. So, if they’re on the go and they have their mobile device, they wanna watch on mobile because they don’t have another option, but when they get home, they gravitate towards the largest device.
So even though we see a ton of “snacking” on mobile — watching snippets of the end of the news or the end of the game — a majority of our viewership is still on a big 10-foot device. And that was a little bit contrary to what we thought originally.
When you’re on a phone, I think the whole idea of what you’re competing with completely changes. You’re not just competing with Hulu and YouTube anymore; you’re competing with Candy Crush and your email app and all of the attention you’re giving this device and whatever notifications are popping down from your top bar. How do you think about the mobile platform today?
For us, it’s table stakes. You can’t be a service right now and not have a mobile application, we see a lot of our acquisition come from the mobile device. Completely agree with you that there’s a 100 different things you could be doing on your phone and you’re competing for someone’s free time at that point, but to us, the mobile’s just another screen. We wanna be wherever people are watching video.
So what happens when Apple gets into this space?
We’re on Amazon devices and Amazon’s dabbling in video. Roku has a free, ad-supported thing. Almost every device partner that’s a partner of ours is also trying something out in video. Obviously Apple has huge scale, they’re making deals, they’re doing original content, they’ve brought a lot of key personnel over there.
We still have a very unique service because the set of content rights that we got in order to create the smaller packages and those add-on packages; it’s something no one’s been able to replicate. Whether that’s YouTube TV or Hulu or DirecTV, the differentiator is how we’ve been able to creatively package the content. So it’d be really interesting to see how Apple comes out. They obviously have a huge install base, and they make great products. I don’t see them as a direct competitor of what Sling TV’s doing.
What does the future hold for Sling TV?
We’re seeing more and more people wanna watch video in spaces that we didn’t naturally think of, a lot of talk around AR and VR right now, right, with the Magic Leaps and Oculus and things of that sort. It’ll be really interesting to see how that kind of plays out and if that becomes a primary consumption habit, you can expect Sling to have a great experience there.
Or as cars get smarter and more autonomous, I mean what are the drivers gonna do, right? They’re either gonna be doing something productive or they’re gonna entertain themselves and just what’s that video experience look like in a smart car or autonomous car?
So really for us, it’s chasing the evolving customer trends around video consumption. As connectivity gets better, as screens get more pervasive and things, you can expect we will follow the consumer needs and wants to create a great experience for those verticals.
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