'Skinny' bundles: the awkward adolescence of online video

If your adolescent years were anything like the norm, they probably weren’t pretty. You brandished a know-it-all attitude, only made possible because your world was so small. You expected to be treated like an adult, yet you were incapable of acting like one. Most people outside your bubble wanted nothing to do with you.

I’ve been thinking about those awkward years as I look at all the changes the TV industry is going through. For content owners, media brands, and TV operators, this is a time of confusion, experimentation, and learning. It’s a time in which media companies claim to understand how TV should be, but lack the vision or ability to make big changes. For anyone observing from the outside, the state of TV looks pretty messy.

I’m confident the video-streaming market will mature to the point that it becomes the predominant way for people to watch TV. But along the way, expect to see a few pimples and cracking voices.

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Roku Feed has become the best feature you’re not using

As I’ve written before, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for streaming video is that it’s too hard to keep track of TV shows across different services. If a cable-box DVR can organize shows regardless of channel, cord cutters shouldn’t have to individually check Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, and other apps for new episodes of specific shows.

Since last year, Roku has been working on a solution that runs on its streaming set-top boxes, sticks, and smart TVs. Dubbed Roku Feed—or “My Feed,” as it appears in the main menu—this feature lets you follow your favorite TV shows and get notified when a streaming service adds new episodes. It also lets you track movies, actors, and directors, and it can tell you when prices drop for purchases and rentals.

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In defense of the channel bundles from Sling TV and PlayStation Vue

Whenever I write or read about streaming-TV channel bundles, such as what Sling TV and PlayStation Vue offer, inevitably the following criticism comes up: Why bother? It’s just the same old TV bundle with a different delivery mechanism.

At first glance, the criticism rings true. With Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, you pay a base monthly fee for dozens of channels, but certain other channels are available only if you pay more. It’s possible to spend upwards of $50 per month on these bundles and end up with a channel lineup that’s similar to cable- or satellite-TV service.

But upon closer inspection, streaming-TV bundles have lots of benefits that don’t apply to traditional TV service. These services aren't for everyone, but here’s why you shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand:

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Sling TV channel guide: All the programming, and all the restrictions, all in one chart

Sling TV is a much more expansive streaming video service than used to be, but it hasn’t gotten any easier to understand. If anything, Sling has become more complicated since last year’s launch, with two base packages instead of one, more add-on packages to choose from, and new restrictions that apply to some local and sports channels.

To make sense of it all, I’ve put together a chart that lists all of Sling TV’s channels and add-on packages. Below the chart, I’ll walk through some other things you need to know.

Sling TV channel guide

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The future of Plex: More tools for cord cutters, and less of a focus on the PC

This week, Plex begins the slow process of extricating itself from the desktop PC.

Plex’s server software—which lets you stream your video, music, and photo libraries to other devices around the house—has always required either an always-on PC or a NAS (network-attached storage) device. But as PC sales decline, and NAS boxes become less necessary in the age of cheap cloud storage, Plex has been looking for ways to make its service more mainstream.

With the Nvidia Shield Android TV, Plex has its first attempt at a solution: The $200 streaming video and gaming box now functions as a Plex server, so you can load it up with movies, TV shows, music, and photos, and then beam those files to other devices (phones, tablets, other TVs) across your local Wi-Fi network.

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Apple might be quietly preparing an assault on the cable box via its Apple TV

On the surface, Apple TV seems increasingly focused on cable subscribers instead of cord cutters.

Since its launch last fall, the fourth-generation Apple TV has added several features that provide more convenient access to “TV Everywhere” apps (such as WatchESPN, FX Now, and HBO Go) that require a cable or satellite login to access. Siri is becoming more effective at finding what you want from these channels; the download process is becoming more streamlined; and with the next version of Apple’s tvOS software, logging into these apps will become much less of a hassle.

While these are useful improvements, it’s hard to believe cable subservience is Apple’s true goal. For a device that’s supposedly the “future of television,” its best features are becoming awfully dependent on a cable subscription, which in turn requires a cable box. Can Apple really reinvent TV when its hardware is relegated to a secondary input or a spare television?

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Without Xbox, will broadcast DVR ever get its mainstream moment?

Microsoft handed some bad news to cord cutters last week when it announced that it was stopping work on over-the-air DVR features for the Xbox One.

Originally announced last year, Microsoft planned to support free recording of broadcast channels (CBS, NBC, Fox, and so on) using the Xbox One TV tuner and an over-the-air antenna. Beyond just playback on the Xbox itself, users would be able to stream recordings to the Xbox app on Windows, iOS, and Android, with support for offline playback on Windows. Microsoft now says it’s indefinitely putting those plans “on hold” while it focuses on gaming features.

The DVR features were a big deal because they promised to give cord cutters one box that did it all, from live TV to DVR to streaming. While other options exist today for over-the-air DVR, none are as seamless as what Microsoft promised, and nothing similar appears to be on the horizon.

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