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Popular Skinny Bundles Still Aren't Catering to Cord Cutters

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When skinny bundles—or Virtual Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (vMVPDs)—finally started appearing, I knew there was no way I could cut the cord just yet. None of them offered DVR functionality, and I was completely in love with the DVR experience. I hadn’t watched live TV in years. Skinny bundles were all about live content. It would take time for them to figure it out, I thought.

Then all of the skinny bundles offered cloud DVRs seemingly overnight. Cloud DVRs are even better than hardware DVRs, since you can tap into your recordings from any device.

But there’s still one area where bundles fall down, and that’s in local programming and live sports. While it’s important to offer a collection of popular basic cable channels, it’s also important to have the major networks.

Getting access to local channels is a lot more complicated than getting access to cable channels. Different local affiliates have different owners, and deals often have to be worked out one at a time. The skinny bundles have made good progress here, with most of them offering most local channels in most markets.

Of course, “most” isn’t good enough if your favorite show isn’t supported and you really want to watch it live. I reached out to representatives for DirecTV Now, Hulu Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV to ask how potential customers could learn what local channels were supported before they signed up. All four have areas on their sites where people can look up local channels, typically with a ZIP code search. The Hulu tool tells me I’ll get local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, plus a few smaller options. The DirecTV Now tool tells me the same. Sling TV is missing CBS in my area, and ABC isn’t available in either the company’s Orange or Blue packages, but it’s available as a “broadcast extra” in some markets. YouTube TV offers a list that explains how most of its networks are available in most areas, but then offers many exceptions where only on-demand network programming is supported.

Skinny bundle providers must know how unsatisfying this all is, but perhaps they don’t think it matters to many viewers. For households that keep their cable or satellite accounts, local channels are not an issue. The rep for Sling TV suggested pairing its service with an over-the-air antenna. During the Olympics, Sling TV had a note on its site directing people to buy antennas if they live in an area where the service doesn’t provide NBC. To me, that takes all the simplicity out of over-the-top (OTT) delivery.

But at least skinny bundle providers offer some information about local channels. There’s a deeper problem with live sports, and the providers don’t seem to be in any hurry to fix it. Just because subscribers can stream local channels is no guarantee they can watch all of the games those channels carry. Blackout rules and platform exclusives often prevent the bundles from streaming standard over-the-air games.

Worse, there’s no way to learn what games are supported before signing up. The only option is to sign up and then try to tune in. I’m not even a sports fan, and I find it galling that the skinny bundle providers don’t do more to help people learn what content they’ll get ahead of time.

When I posed this problem to reps from the top four skinny bundles, all said there wasn’t a way to monitor sports programming ahead of time. One suggested viewers take advantage of trial periods: Sign up for a trial account, search for favorite teams and leagues, and cancel the trial if you don’t see what you want.

That’s a pretty kludgy way to do it, and I’m shocked at how poor the experience is. One person connected to this industry told me that the networks are responsible for blackouts and often change online access with little or no notice. With that kind of uncertainly, the bundles don’t want to promise access they can’t guarantee.

I get that the skinny bundle companies are in a difficult position, but it’s one they’re going to have to solve—and fast—if they want to be a no-compromise alternative to pay TV.

[This article appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Catering to Cord Cutters."]

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