A few days ago, I entertained myself for a few minutes watching ESPN's Stephen A. Smith lose his cool — this time, over an "incompetent" NFL for not interviewing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady regarding the team's deflated-football controversy.
But what made this moment noteworthy, was where I was watching Smith: not on a TV connected to a cable box, but on my iPad. Thanks to Sling TV.
Sling TV is a streaming service cooked up by the satellite TV company Dish Network to give anyone online access to a small clutch of cable channels for a $20 monthly fee. The company will start offering subscriptions to a select group of volunteers who signed up through its website this week; within a few weeks, Dish plans to open it up to the general public.
"All you need is a credit card and a broadband connection," thundered Dish CEO Joe Clayton, speaking at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. "It's aimed squarely at the millennial audience — those 18- to 35-year-olds, who represent a market virtually untouched by the pay TV industry today."
Clayton was almost giddy in describing Sling TV, an online service that doesn't require a Dish membership or cable subscription. You can watch it from mobile devices, laptops and some streaming TV gadgets like the Roku.
The presence of channels like ESPN and ESPN2 is important. Access to live sports is the biggest advantage cable companies have had in convincing subscribers they should keep their service despite rising prices.
Dish gave critics early access to Sling TV last week, so I gave it a spin, downloading the app to my iPad and to a Roku 3 streaming device on my home TV.
The results were impressive.
The basic service features 12 channels, including ESPN, TNT, CNN and the Disney Channel. The app allows you to watch the channels live, see what's coming up and access a few movies on demand.
It's a simple design providing access to channels you mostly had to buy a cable or satellite subscription to see before now.
A few channels, like HGTV and The Food Network, have a "start over" feature allowing you to watch a show from the beginning no matter when you come to it. An extra $5 a month buys a kids TV package or a news and information package; Dish says a bigger sports TV package and video on demand features are also on the way.
There are some drawbacks. The service doesn't have broadcast networks like CBS, NBC or ABC; some of the programming information was incorrect on the channels I browsed; and the channel selection is limited by design — so the only news services are CNN, HLN and Bloomberg, for example — no Fox News or MSNBC.
Some of these limitations are likely about corporate alliances. CNN, HLN, TNT and TBS are entities of Turner Broadcasting, which is participating in the service. Other companies, such as Fox and NBC, don't seem to be part of the lineups yet.
And while most channels also stream their commercials on Sling TV, ESPN and ESPN2 play funky instrumental music with a message promising the shows will be right back; presumably because their advertisers haven't yet paid for access to Sling TV's eyeballs.
Dish is careful to say this service targets millennials who have broadband Internet connections but don't buy cable TV. That's probably to avoid upsetting cable companies, which have always insisted they can't offer smaller chunks of channels at a lower price.
But Sling TV's channels — Disney, TNT, CNN — seem less youth-oriented and more likely to appeal to "cord cutting" TV fans of all ages, especially those looking to drop a hefty cable bill and already watching lots of television online.
Simple, effective and relatively cheap, Sling TV offers a small taste of cable TV for those who don't want to buy the whole smorgasbord.
It might also help push a reluctant cable industry into letting people more closely choose which channels they pay for.