Is Sling TV Ready for Primetime?

Mj 618_348_cutting the cable not so fast
Don Farrall / Getty Images

The NCAA Final Four is one of the biggest viewing days of the year — last year’s championship game between Kentucky and Connecticut drew 21.2 million pairs of eyes. And, it is that kind of critical mass that gave the fledgling Sling TV service its first real test. But, by all accounts it suffered some serious shortcomings: Users were routinely greeted by an interrupted stream and a customer service  that was closed for the Easter holiday.

Michigan State University fan Jeff Kozlowski tuned in to Saturday’s first game matchup between the Spartans and the Duke Blue Devils, but from the opening tip was stonewalled by a trio of errors, including a message that said the content was not authorized for playback. Other times the picture just froze. “I would just hit the OK button over and over until it would come back on,” he says. “It probably happened 25 times throughout the game.”

Cutting the Cable: Sling TV

Calls to Sling TV’s customer service went unanswered, while complaints lit up the company’s Twitter handles moments after the first tip. They were, however, kind of fielding questions there. Somebody signing Tweets as *JL responded to a handful over the course of MSU-Duke. That rep’s answer was much the same:

@slinganswers: @maaronson We apologize for the inconvenience, and we are working to fix the issues as they arise. You can watch the game on TNT as well.*JL”

Another viewer, Steve from Roswell, Ga., didn’t speak with a representative by phone, but got an email response. “It said nothing about the fact that I could switch channels to TNT,” Steve wrote to us. “Just that ‘IT is working on the problem.'”

Without official resolution, viewers found alternative means to watch the game. As mentioned above, TNT was also carrying live video. The feed was reliable, though it was Duke’s “TeamStream,” so hardly the more objective announcing offered on the national broadcast on TBS. Even TNT slowed, however, by the second game — a hotly contested affair that saw undefeated Kentucky fall to the Wisconsin Badgers.

Other viewers abandoned Sling altogether — some perhaps permanently, basically tweeting “cancel my subscription!” The answer for many was to switch to the NCAA March Madness app and watch the game on a smaller screen. The video was clear, without hiccup, and had a hidden bonus: The feed was actually ahead of what Sling was relaying. At the opening tip of the second half on Sling, the NCAA’s app had already aired more than 30 seconds of game-clock action.

Reached for comment on the issues, Sling’s public relations department said they were aware of the issues, but didn’t have immediate answers for what went wrong or how they intend to handle spikes for major live events in the future.

The issue, however, is a real concern for viewers who are looking to cut the cord and go with Internet-based video. In an earlier article about Sling, we mentioned how the video quality isn’t quite up to snuff with over-the-air programming (basketball footage is darker, more contrasty, and a bit jerky). Those issues are minor, so long as the feed is reliable and the costs are reasonable. But, in the end, even the interruptions during the Final Four might not be enough to scare off subscribers.

“I’ve been without cable for about three years,” Steve says. “I wouldn’t consider going back even with tonight’s issue.”

Kozlowski agreed: “I am a cord cutter, for more than a year now. And even with today I don’t regret it a bit.”

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