Sling TV may add broadcast networks but won't force you to buy them

Dish's online service for live TV might add channels like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- some of the biggest on television -- but it won't put them in the essential package you have to buy.

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Joan E. Solsman
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Dish Network's Sling TV service offers live TV over the Internet, with the basic required package of more than 20 channels costing $20 a month. David Katzmaier/CNET

Broadcast networks may claim to be the home of must-see TV, but Internet television service Sling TV won't make you pay for them.

Sling TV made "a key decision from the beginning" to omit broadcast content from its basic packages, Chief Executive Roger Lynch said at an industry conference in Chicago on Thursday. "You'll see us launch broadcast networks in a tier," he said, referring to collections of channels that subscribers can pay extra to add to the basic $20-a-month service.

Dish Network's Sling TV was the first of a parade of services launching this year that deliver multiple channels of live TV over the Internet directly to consumers. Playstation followed with its Vue service, and Apple is expected to launch a rival as well. For television programmers and distributors, fears that they could miss out on a younger generation of customers who watch video online outweighed worries about undermining their main business in traditional pay TV. The new services are being watched closely for signs of how the TV industry will take shape as viewer habits change.

Many reviews of Sling TV have noted its lack of broadcast channels -- ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS, which are sometimes the most-watched channels on television -- as a hole in Dish's new offering. But Lynch said its target market never saw those channels as essential to a service like Sling. (CBS is the parent company of CNET.)

"They're already getting that content. They're getting it from Hulu, they're getting it from over-the-air" with an antenna, he said. "We didn't want to force people to buy channels they were already seeing."

Lynch's comments elide the fact that Hulu -- which is owned by the parents of broadcasters ABC, NBC and Fox -- doesn't offer the entirety of their programming. And Hulu uniformly lacks the major live events, like NFL games and awards shows, that are often the biggest audience draws on those channels. In addition, over-the-air signals don't reach all homes, so some channels are unavailable to some people even with an antenna.

Lynch also said that Sling TV is seeing high engagement, since it's a service that people make their primary way to watch live TV. He reiterated past comments that subscribers to Dish World -- an international predecessor to Sling TV -- watched five hours a day on average. "Our expectation is it wouldn't be quite that high for Sling TV," he said. "It's not our vision that Sling TV will be everything that everyone will want."