“Skinny bundles” have long been an overhyped disappointment. Cable companies offering sports-free packages have been hamstrung by contractural provisions and legal threats from offering them all that widely, when they’ve bothered to promote them at all. And efforts to create over-the-top offerings, like Sling TV, have kept most of the most expsnsive channels, including ESPN, thus preserving, not undermining, the worst parts of the cable bundle.
Last week Sling TV unveiled a new “beta” multi-screen offering, allowing customers to stream Sling TV content on up to three screens, rather than the single screen their existing offering was limited to. But that’s not the only difference between the multi-screen and single-screen offerings. For the first time, the multi-screen offering provides access to the Fox networks, including FX, FS1, and Fox’s RSNs. And perhaps more to the point, the multi-screen offering does not include ESPN or the other Disney networks. For the first time, there is a widely-available linear TV service that can actually free you from paying the ESPN tax.
The new multi-screen offering is not perfect; for one thing, Fox is nearly as much of a contributor to the high price of the cable bundle as ESPN, through FS1 and especially its regional sports networks, though Sling does not appear to be offering Fox News. So subscribers to the new package may not be subsidizing ESPN, but if they have no interest in sports they’re still subsidizing expensive regional sports networks, and unlike with the single-stream product broadcast networks are included so you’re paying retransmission consent (or at least making up Fox’s share of it) even if you can get Fox with an antenna. Sports fans are still hitched to the entire cable bundle, and FS1 offers few sports whose fans can go without ESPN or other sports networks (basically the UFC, NHRA, and that’s it). As a result of Fox’s own high price, the new service’s $20 price tag offers no savings over the single-screen product, so it might seem like someone would only switch to it if they’ve read my book and are dropping ESPN out of principle, especially since the Discovery networks are also missing so anyone who wants any of them will be stuck with the single-stream offering and paying the ESPN tax.
But if you’re someone who’s interested in Sling TV for reasons other than ESPN, if your interest revolves around the AMC, A&E, and Scripps networks (and Turner as well), you’re going to gravitate to the service that actually allows you to stream the content on multiple screens. And for sports fans, local sports is arguably more of a motivator to remain signed up for cable than ESPN is, and while fans of local teams can’t necessarily go without ESPN entirely, since ESPN has a significant number of exclusive baseball and basketball games including Sunday Night Baseball, one baseball wild-card game, and one of the NBA’s Conference Finals, fans of teams on Fox networks can still watch most of their games without paying the ESPN tax, especially if the teams aren’t that good.
A part of me thinks that Disney and Discovery are just the only two companies that haven’t given Dish the right to offer their content on multiple screens and this is just Dish’s way of pushing them to re-do their deal, meaning ESPN will be there to inflate the price of the offering and keep people paying the ESPN tax soon enough (as Disney seemed to imply in a statement), making this not that different from when PlayStation Vue didn’t include ESPN until earlier this year. But Sling is a lot more visible, and provides more cost savings over a more traditional bundle, than PS Vue ever did, and it’s not exactly obvious that ESPN will eventually join the multi-screen offering. Unless and until it does or Dish ends up nerfing it in other ways, people looking to save money on their cable subscriptions now have a viable option that deprives ESPN of their revenue stream and broad reach that allows them to keep high-profile sports hostage to the cable bundle. And if AMC and Scripps find the multi-screen offering attractive enough, they may just decide they don’t need to be propped up by sports networks at all – and that’s when the real threat to ESPN’s business model begins.