Cable has always had a love-hate relationship with the Slingbox. After all, many MSOs (secretly) love it because it’s an easy way to add portability to any cable service. But many content owners have been quite wary because the ability of consumers to port content to any laptop just raises a lot of, uh… rights issues—especially for sports nets that have all kinds of pesky geographic restrictions on games. It’s obviously a complicated issue, but today it got even more complicated as Sling Media officially launched its “SlingCatcher” product at big retail outlets like Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, Microcenter and J&R.
Interestingly, SlingCatcher is almost the opposite of the company’s signature Slingbox because it ports Internet content to the TV rather than TV content to an Internet-enabled device. It’s not a new concept, obviously. Roku, XBox360, Playstation3, Apple TV and several other Internet-enabled set-tops allow some version of this. But in each case, there are severe limitations (ie, Roku is restricted to the Netflix site; Apple TV is beholden to iTunes content; The PS3’s browser isn’t compatible with Flash 9.0, which is used by Hulu and countless other online video sites).
SlingCatcher promises to be a more open device that gives consumers the ability to watch Internet video from a variety of sources—right on the TV screen. But as with all things, this freedom comes with a price… namely, a slightly more complicated setup. While other boxes either connect directly to the Internet via an Ethernet port or WiFi connection, the SlingCatcher must instead communicate with a separate PC running customized software. This “SlingProjector” software allows consumers to “project” online video directly onto their TV via the SlingCatcher. But once someone has it set up, and assuming it works as advertised… it’s pretty liberating. SlingProjector supports virtually any video streaming web site, media player and Internet video player and is designed to give the user control over how the video is projected to the TV. It also lets a user select a specific video playing within a web site or media player, projecting just the video and not the entire PC screen. That makes for a much more TV-friendly viewing experience. Are we nearing the day in which consumers won’t make a distinction between TV and online video?
So today’s SlingCatcher launch is a mixed bag for the cable industry. On one hand, this kind of technology really just extends the availability of legitimately streamed online content to the TV screen. On the other hand, it also extends the availability of unauthorized content. Sites like Hulu that only allow streaming (ie, no direct downloads) may fare pretty well under the SlingCatcher regime. Those streams, after all, contain embedded advertisements with the fast-forward function disabled. For ad-supported nets, this a much better situation than the DVR in which people can essentially fast forward through all the ads.
For cable operators, however, this is a relatively frightening trend. It opens the door for more content owners to make an “end run” around their distribution partners by making more and more content available online. What’s interesting is that the cable industry has let players like Sling Media cement big followings by offering features that cable operators should have put into set-tops years ago. Tru2way comes not a moment too soon. But with no tru2way boxes widely available until next year, is it getting too late? As always, consumers will tell us. And they’re always right.