The Slingbox, Sling Media’s flagship product, promises to do for “place-shifting” what TiVo did for “time-shifting.” The silver box has one job: it hooks up to your antenna or cable service and streams good-quality television across a local network or the Internet. With a Slingbox in place, a laptop becomes a portable television that always has access to the same content you have while at home. While consumers like the idea, Hollywood has been less enthusiastic. In fact, television and cable companies have been downright hostile, threatening Sling with lawsuits (though none have been filed yet).
But it’s not just the distribution side of the television industry that has reservations about the new technology. Content producers also worry that the Slingbox and similar devices could erode their profits, though at first glance it’s difficult to see how this might happen. After all, the device simply allows people to watch more TV, and it doesn’t let them skip ads like TiVo. In essence, it’s like sitting down to watch your television at home, except that you can do it from anywhere in the world.
That’s exactly the problem. Most content providers simply want more eyeballs, and they don’t care where they come from. If people are watching, then executives are happy. Sports leagues function differently, though, and license their broadcasts at different rates in different markets. They care very much about where, exactly, you’re watching their programming, and the fact that the Slingbox makes geographical considerations irrelevant poses a problem for their traditional approach to handling television contracts. Major League Baseball is especially upset at Sling, and recently participated in a debate with the company at which the gloves came off.
George Kliavkoff, an MLB vice president, sat down with Rich Buchanan, Sling’s marketing VP, for a chat at the Digital Media Summit. Cnet’s coverage of the event made it sound like an interesting exchange, and it’s clear that despite their willingness to talk in public, the two sides remain far apart.
Baseball sells transmission rights to specific geographical locations. So, a cable subscriber in San Francisco who watches a Giants baseball game from his or her laptop during a visit to Chicago is stealing from the Chicago cable operator who paid to transmit MLB games in that city.
But we’re not talking Napster here, argues Buchanan. The cable subscriber in such a scenario already purchased the content from a programmer back home and under the law can watch it wherever he or she chooses, he said.
“Your interpretation of the (cable and satellite user agreement) is wrong,” Kliavkoff told Buchanan as the two spoke before some 200 conference attendees. Sling Media users “are violating the scope of their user agreements.”
For MLB, the bottom line is this. Your TV, turned on, with no one watching the game: OK. Your TV, turned on, with the game streaming to you and only you while on business in Philly: illegal.
With all the heated rhetoric surrounding the Slingbox, the device will probably end up as the centerpiece of a court case within the next year, but Sling is not content to rest on its laurels. The company is actively pushing forward with new products that will sling media to cell phones and other portable devices as well as laptops, a move that will probably anger cell phone providers as well as content producers (both of whom would love for you to pay again for the privilege of watching something on that postage stamp screen). Sling has also made a recent push into Europe with the introduction of its device into the UK market.