Dish Network has the marketing campaign all wrong for Sling TV, the $20-a-month, 11-channel streaming service it plans to launch this month. With a slogan “Take Back TV,” Sling TV “is really targeting a different demographic” — Millennials who “are not subscribing to pay-TV in nearly the percentages that previous generations did” — Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch says. He hopes to attract lots of 18-to-35 year olds by feeding services including ESPN over broadband to smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices, at a bargain price compared to the $80+ per month expanded pay TV package.
But when you look at how many gray-haired viewers tune in to the programming Sling will offer, it’s clear that the service may appeal more to cash-strapped cable and satellite subscribers than it will to young adults. Why not take advantage of that by urging consumers to replace their bloated, and costly, all-or-nothing programming bundles? Perhaps a slogan like: “Cut Back TV”?
Let’s start with what you don’t see on Sling: It has few services that actually target Millennials such as Comedy Central, MTV, or Fuse. Indeed, the median age of the audience for the 11 channels it will offer is about 48, based on Nielsen’s tally of full-day, Live+7 viewing in 2014. That’s older than the average age for all pay TV networks, pegged at 40 in a recent report by MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson.
The average viewer for eight of Sling’s channels was older than the oldest Millennial: That includes CNN (average age 59.1), HGTV (56.4), TNT (53.6), ESPN2 (53.1), ESPN (48.6), Travel Channel (48.2), Food Network (47.6), and TBS (44.4).
At least two of the remaining channels — Cartoon Network (median age 11.9) and Disney Channel (11.7) — don’t belong in a package that execs say will complement, not cannibalize, the pay TV ecosystem. The conventional wisdom is that the young adults that Sling’s targeting, who get along fine without an expanded basic subscription, change their minds and pay the full freight as soon as they have children to entertain.
That leaves just one conventional TV channel with an average audience in the Millennial sweet spot: ABC Family (29.5). Sling also will have Web videos from Maker Studios which should presumably appeal to young adults.
To be fair, the average age numbers are a little misleading. They’d be somewhat lower if Millennials subscribed to pay TV, or if Nielsen did a better job of counting people who watch on mobile devices. And some channels, including ESPN, reach a broad audience that includes young adults.
Yet Sling’s two initial add-on packages — each available for $5 a month — reinforce my belief that Sling wasn’t built for 18-to-35 year olds. There’s nothing cutting edge about them: The News & Information pack includes Bloomberg TV, Cooking Channel, DIY Network, and HLN. And Kids Extra has Boomerang, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Baby TV, and Duck TV.
There’s no need to be coy. Dish assembled the channels it could from the deals it was able to make. And the satellite company would have left the negotiating tables empty handed if it positioned Sling as a cheap alternative to the expanded basic bundle. Programmers and investors desperately want to preserve the system that requires pay TV subscribers to subsidize channels that they don’t watch. Consumers and advertisers funnel about $91.5 billion a year to networks, which enables them to consistently generate profit margins that most other businesses look at with envy. They also continue to raise prices at high single digit percentages each year to pay for rising sports rights, and additional original programming.
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen knows the score. He has said time and again that the rising price demands may kill the Golden Goose. Even though the economy’s improving — there’s been a 10.5% increase in private sector jobs since the recession ended in February 2010 — inflation-adjusted wages have only increased 0.7%.
That’s what will make Sling’s upcoming launch so fascinating. Will Sling really limit its appeal to Millennials? Or will other consumers look past the marketing, and see what’s right in front of their eyes?