By Shelly Brisbin
January 6, 2022 3:13 PM PT
TV for Picky Eaters
I’ve noticed that folks who write about cord-cutting tend to be maximalists: “How can I get the most of all the things available?” Fair enough. A lot of people like lots of TV.
But I am not them. I am but a humble fan of classic moves with a less-than-12-hours-per-week TV habit. I’m also budget-minded, which some people might call “cheap.” Since we cut the cord a few years ago, I’ve simply done without access to TV, outside of streaming services. But recently, I’ve been on a journey to figure out how I can get the TV morsels I want, at a reasonable cost.
What I care about is the back catalog—classic movies, arthouse fare, restorations, and the odd vintage TV show. And live news. In that last interest, I’m not alone. Live news and sports are big reasons people stick to cable, or add an over-the-top service to their lives. The leading provider of classic movies is Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It’s not simply that TCM plays films from the 30s forward, but that what you find there is often not available on streaming services, or even on physical media. I dig both the volume and the rarity of what TCM does.
What I Really Really Want
In December, I decided to pull the trigger on an over-the-top service. I had two primary TV goals: bring TCM back into my house, and keep monthly subscription costs below the approximately $90 a cable subscription would have set me back.
And so, I limited my search (Suppose is Jason’s go-to tool for this) to services that offered TCM. You can get the channel is as part of YouTube TV, Hulu Live, DIRECTV Stream, and Sling TV. The first three will sell you a big collection of channels, including TCM, for between $65 and $70 per month. So far, their advantage over a cable subscription – for my purposes – is the ability to watch on lots of platforms. They do each offer local channels, which is a nice bonus.
Sling TV is another kettle of fish, and the one I ended up choosing. Like the others, Sling gives you a fixed basket of channels plus add-on channels, plus DVR. My package, including TCM, costs $45 per month. Here’s how I did it.
To get Sling, you must either buy Sling Orange, promising 30+ channels, or Sling Blue with 40+. There is some overlap, but Orange has more sports and Blue, more news. Each package is $35, or you can buy the lot for $50. I picked Sling Blue, and along with news, I got lifestyle and some movie-focused channels. But not TCM. It’s not part of Sling Orange or Blue—but you can add it with the $6 per-month Hollywood Extra package. I also got FXM, CinéMoi, the Sundance Channel and six more movie-focused offerings.
But here’s the thing: I got way more than that, both in the base package and the Hollywood extra. My channel guide lists 130+ channels, including dreadful single-franchise wastes of space, but also delightful surprises like the Film Detective, Heroes & Icons, Shout Factory and lots more.
All this for $41 per month, leaving plenty of headroom if I decide I’d like the 200-hour cloud DVR instead of the free 50-hour one, or if I want to add other special-interest channel packs. A podcast I’ve been doing lately has gotten me interested in Hallmark romance movies, for instance.
One downside of Sling is that access to local channels is limited. I’ve got exactly one.
Eye of the Beholder
I’ve loaded Sling onto my Roku box, Apple TV and iOS devices, and added the Tizen-native app on my Samsung TV. With the Blue package, I can watch live TV on up to three simultaneous screens—which is plenty in our two-person household.
I don’t have any option to create profiles for family members. If I had kids, or a spouse who liked to watch motocross and cooking shows, I might be pretty unhappy about that. You can set parental controls, which are locked down by creating a PIN that’s needed to access specific channels or programs with content ratings you want to lock kids out of.
I find Sling’s interface cluttered and busy. You can’t choose which rows of content to show or hide. The Spotlight row, Recommended for You row, and Trending Live row, are all mixed up with my favorites and DVR content. I’m not a fan of algorithmic TV recommendations. Just give me the channels I’ve favorited and the shows I’ve recorded! Or give me a choice to hide recommendations.
That interface is rendered slightly differently on various operating systems. For example, on my old Roku system, I can filter channels by category, filter by favorites, list them alphabetically, or switch from a grid to a row of thumbnails. Those options don’t appear on the Apple TV version.
Not So Accessible
The Sling apps for Apple TV, Samsung Tizen, Roku and iOS work with each operating system’s screen reader features, speaking the interface and content labels aloud. That’s not a given with TV apps, many of which ignore OS accessibility altogether.
Visually, there’s not much you can do to customize the Sling apps. The gray background provides good contrast with the images and white screen text, but there’s no option to change those colors or increase text size, even on the Apple TV, which provides native support for larger text. Sling not only supports closed captioning, as you’d expect, but has a slew of options for customizing the color and style of text.
Can I Keep It?
I have really, really missed TCM. Getting my movie comfort food via Sling is affordable and flexible. Still, the small amount of time I spend watching each week might tempt me to save the $40 monthly.
It’s the quirky surprises, like the Film Detective channel, and serendipitous encounters with more modern movies that tip the scales in favor of staying subscribed. For now.
[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]