According to some pop culture experts, we’re experiencing a renaissance: the golden age of premium television. With astonishing commercial and critical success, original programs from cable channels, such as HBO, AMC and FX, are winning awards and drawing huge audiences. Streaming services, such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, are not only in this mix but in some cases, they’ve surpassed traditional broadcast and cable.
Thanks to devices that connect to high-speed internet, it’s easier than ever to access these shows at home, through many different sources and devices. With so many choices, it can be difficult to determine which is best for your household. Two of the more popular premium television subscription options are Sling TV and cable. There are several factors to consider when weighing Sling TV vs. cable. We’ll look at how each works and the pros and cons of both.
What Is Cable?
Cable is a subscription-based service that delivers a television signal to your home using buried coaxial cable, as opposed to traditional, over-the-air broadcast television, which uses antenna technology. It may surprise you to learn that cable was developed in the late 1940s and became commercially available in the 1950s. As technology advanced and the cost of starting cable channels decreased, the service skyrocketed in popularity and use in the 1980s. Dozens of different providers distribute cable throughout the U.S depending mostly on the region. Some major players in the cable distribution business are Mediacom, Comcast, Cox and CableOne.
What Is Sling TV?
Sling TV is an over-the-top (OTT) streaming service that is accessible by opening an app on an internet-connected device, such as a smart TV, smartphone, tablet, computer, or set-top box like a Roku or Apple TV. Sling was created by DISH TV in the early 2000s to serve a growing market of people who were unhappy with high cable or satellite subscription prices. With the rise of streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, a movement known as “cord-cutting” emerged. Cord-cutters rejected cable and satellite plans, deciding instead to pay lower monthly fees to streaming services individually, and watch local programming free over-the-air (if at all.)
Sling TV was designed to have a much lower monthly price than cable, in hopes of bringing cord-cutters back to premium channels. Sling TV is a streaming platform similar to the others mentioned. It is accessible using an app on smartphones, set-top-boxes, smart TVs, or tablets. Subscribers choose from three simple plans with streamlined lineups to receive cable channels.
Positive in Cable
Infrastructure, Accessibility and Reliability
We’ve bundled these three topics together because they are so closely related. While cable has technically existed almost as long as television, it rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of this, cable companies have had decades to expand their footprints, running cables through the ground and reaching even seemingly remote locations. That long-standing and ever-growing infrastructure has created incredible accessibility. Some form of cable TV is available nearly everywhere, which you could not say of high-speed internet.
That infrastructure has also led to great reliability. Since cable lies buried deep in the ground, it is rarely affected by weather and rarely “goes out.” Short of catastrophic events or power outages, cable generally delivers as promised. If there are issues, most major cable companies have local service technicians available to investigate problems and repair them.
Wide Range of Channels
Thirty-plus years of business have also enabled the cable industry to cultivate a wide selection of channels, due in no small part to long-standing deals and business relationships that have spanned decades. As the cable TV business model has evolved, so have the business models for the channels themselves. Many offer multiple channels to expand or spread out their programming, such as MTV with MTV2 or ESPN with ESPN2.
Since it’s very common for a large media corporation to own several television properties, they will often negotiate for cable providers to take all their subsidiaries or risk not receiving their most popular offering. As we look at the channel lineups of Sling TV vs. cable side by side, you’ll see this is a big pro for cable.
Negative in Cable
Price and Contracts
It is not uncommon for cable packages to cost north of $100 per month. While cable companies do frequently offer promotional or sign-on discounts, and most major providers have “lower-tier” packages, they’re carefully constructed to leave some popular channels in the higher-priced offerings.
You may also find add-on charges to be a negative with cable. Your regular package likely won’t include premium channels, such as HBO or Showtime, and if you want to add them, you’ll see your bill get much larger quite quickly. Even more upsetting to some cable subscribers are “hidden” fees. You may pay for installation or service, but you may also pay monthly fees for rental of equipment, such as DVRs.
To qualify for promotional discounts, cable companies often require subscribers to sign on for two-year contracts with penalties to pay if they wish to cancel early. Some cable companies “bundle” their television service with internet or phone service. While this does technically lower the price of the television service itself, it still requires long term commitments and large monthly checks from subscribers.
Lack of Channel Choice
While cable generally offers a very impressive and broad range of channels, customers may be frustrated by the fact that they are paying for channels they never watch and would rather replace with others. Because of their carriage deals with the channel groups’ owners, cable does not give you the ability to “mix-and-match” and customize your lineup.
This is often a sticky issue with sports packages. As cable’s channel lineups have expanded, they have been able to offer regional channels that cater specifically to college games of interest to people in a given area. But those channels are usually on a higher-tier plan or part of a premium add-on bundle with a high price tag.
Cable has the advantage of having been the dominant premium television provider for over 30 years, which has led to these factors
While cable scores highly with its accessibility, reliability and large channel lineup, it does have some key disadvantages
Positive in Sling TV
Sling has three plans, all under $50 a month. They start at just $25 a month, with extra “add-on” and premium channel bundles starting at just $5 a month each. Even with the highest-priced plans and a few add-ons, the monthly price is still a long way from the cost of cable.
The three plans Sling TV offers are:
As opposed to two-year cable contracts, Sling TV customers simply pay month-to-month, starting with an automatic withdrawal on for the first month when they first sign up. After that, there are no built-in price hikes or commitments, and cancellation is easy to do online, should they ever wish to stop the service. That may seem like a small and practical thing, but many cable companies insist that subscribers cancel over the phone so they can attempt to sway them or offer them a temporary discount to keep their plan.
Out-of-Home Access and DVR
Since Sling TV is an internet-based service, it has the luxury of being able to make itself available across most internet-connected devices on the market today. That doesn’t just mean you can watch Sling TV on your smartphone at home, but anywhere you have a strong enough internet connection to support the stream.
This is very useful if you’re a frequent traveler, or someone with a long commute by bus or train. If you subscribe to Sling Blue or Sling Orange + Blue, you will have “multi-stream access.” That means that someone can be watching a program on a device at your home, while you watch a different show on a different device remotely. With Sling Blue, you receive up to three streams. With Sling Orange + Blue, you can get up to four.
To make this feature even more appealing, Sling TV offers a digital video recorder (DVR) feature. The DVR is a virtual, cloud-based system that allows you to record and store up to 50 hours of HD programming. You can automatically schedule it to record new episodes of your favorite shows and have them available on-demand, and across devices.
Negative in Sling TV
Reliance on the Internet
One of the negatives of an internet-based streaming service is that it depends so heavily on a strong and consistent internet connection. While this may sound like a non-issue in this day and age, consider that even with a strong wired internet connection, significant signal loss occurs when one connects multiple devices across a wireless network. You can typically expect to receive 30 to 40% of your wired internet signal strength on a wireless network. If you’re in an area where internet speeds are slow, or if you access the internet through a DSL line via a phone jack, you may not be able to access Sling TV at in high definition, or at all, from time to time.
This also, of course, affects Sling TV subscribers’ ability to access their content with mobile devices. Before, we mentioned the convenience of being able to access content on a long commute. If you’re riding a subway or other type of metro transit to work, passing the time while watching a program you’ve saved to your DVR or streaming a live sports event sounds great. Unfortunately, if you’re taking one of those forms of public transportation, you’re not likely to have a strong, free, public wireless internet signal to connect with.
Even if you have a large or unlimited data plan with your device, it may not have reliable enough coverage to give you a pleasant viewing experience. Ironically, this is a bigger problem in larger cities, where 5G/LTE/Broadband companies can’t keep up with the demand from users who are constantly streaming from their networks.
Fewer Channel Options
We looked at how cable providers have been able to amass such a collection of channels over time. Since Sling TV is still an emerging platform, and many companies see it as a direct threat to the traditional cable television model, that limits the number of channels Sling TV has on its roster. While Sling TV’s add-on packages make up for some of this, subscribers may still find some big holes in their desired channel lineup.
Along similar lines, Sling TV users may be frustrated by the single-stream nature of the Sling Orange plan, especially if multiple family members are trying to access programming at the same time. Sling Blue’s multi-stream plan can help with this, but since not all of Sling Orange’s channels are part of that lineup, viewers who need multi-stream capabilities may have to upgrade to the more expensive Stream Orange + Blue plan to get the streaming power they desire.
Lack of Local Stations
Due to complex FCC regulations, the broadcast rights for local television stations must be negotiated market by market. With over 210 television markets in the United States, Sling TV is not able to provide local channels to each. In most cases, Sling can offer programming from the major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, etc.) but not locally-generated content like news and lifestyle programs.
While this may not be a major concern for some, it can become an issue during breaking news or severe weather events. Not having local stations available across the board is a disadvantage.
Sling TV has some very appealing things going for it. Notably:
We’ve looked at some fantastic selling points for Sling TV, but there are some downsides. They include:
So, Which Is Better?
It may sound wishy-washy, but the answer is essentially “it depends on you.” Let’s look at the following primary factors for many viewers:
If Picture Quality Is Your Main Concern…
Grading on picture quality technically could go either way, but only if you have an invincible internet connection. Cable gets the edge here, for all its previously mentioned infrastructure, accessibility and reliability. The quality and consistency of Sling TV’s resolution are tied too closely to the subscriber’s internet speed, which may be completely out of his or her control, depending on the situation.
If Mobile Access Is Your Main Concern…
For the most part, cable providers are hesitant to provide unrestricted mobile access to their subscribers. Sling TV, on the other hand, has leaned into this concept and embraced it whole-heartedly. It doesn’t look like any cable provider of note will be able to offer a full mobile package any time soon, and it will probably come at a premium cost if and when it comes at all.
Sling TV’s out-of-home capabilities make it the winner in this department, hands down. It’s been one of their most appealing features since they launched, and the number of mobile devices that can be used to access content has grown greatly since then.
If Channel Selection Is Your Main Concern…
Channel selection is tricky because it could go either way. If you want to have as many channels as possible at your fingertips, cable is clearly the better option. If you want to make sure you can watch your local channels, cable is more than likely your best bet. If you want to be able to pick and choose a smaller lineup of channels that suit your interests, Sling TV wins with its more customizable packages.
There is ultimately no definitive right or wrong answer to the “Sling TV vs. cable” question. In the end, it boils down to what matters to you. If you want to save money, Sling TV is for you. If you want more channels, cable is for you. If you want mobile access, Sling TV is for you. If you want a more consistent, reliable signal, cable is for you. The great news for consumers is that the premium television landscape is more competitive than ever before. Since cable is no longer quite the dominant force in this field that it once was, most cable providers are becoming more flexible and customer service-oriented in an effort to keep their subscribers from cutting the cord. Sling TV’s features and lineups have evolved over the years, and they continue to expand. You have more options than ever, and those options are only becoming more and more customizable and friendly to television lovers everywhere.