Sony's slick new cable competitor is finally here.
PlayStation Vue, which launches Wednesday in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, is Sony's attempt to bring the traditional cable bundle online. It boasts a streamlined, personalized interface and an emphasis on recording shows automatically so users can binge-watch at their leisure. The service brings a much-needed overhaul to the clunky cable box interfaces to which we’ve all grown accustomed, but the price tag of $50 per month to start and lack of key channels may keep cord-cutters from hopping on board.
Vue, which will be available initially for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, attempts to marry cable's wide selection of live content with the ease-of-use of online platforms like Netflix and Hulu. The service boasts more than 50 live channels, including CBS, Fox, NBC, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, with AMC on the way next month. A cloud-based DVR-system automatically records at least three days of content for most of the channels. Users can also record 28 days’ worth of programming for up to 500 shows. Couple these features with Vue's on-demand movie and TV show libraries — which Sony says are comparable to what you’d get with a typical cable subscription — and Vue comes packed with an absolutely massive trove of content.
Sony simplified navigating its humongous offering by focusing on content rather than channel numbers and showtimes. In the midst of a live show, users can bring up a menu that will show the current program, upcoming shows on the same channel, recently watched shows across all of PlayStation Vue, and Netflix-like recommendations based on the show currently airing. Users can also select individual channels to view their lineups and most popular shows, or select “Live TV” to see all the shows on air at a given moment. “Live TV” can be sorted by real-time popularity, making it easier to quickly flip to a March Madness basketball game or the latest episode of Empire. Dwayne Benefield, head of the PlayStation Vue service, says pretty much any show can be accessed within three or four clicks.
“We wanted to take out the frustration of finding what you want,” Benefield says.
Vue also sports a more traditional TV Guide-like schedule listing and a search option. There’s an “Explore” tab that lets users filter shows by genre, channel and age-appropriateness (an option we’d love to see on Netflix’s apps). Sony is clearly trying to serve users who want to quickly find a specific program as well as those who want to lean back and channel surf, and it appears as if Vue's speedy interface may be flexible enough to do both (Sony demoed Vue for TIME on a PlayStation 4, the most powerful platform that runs the service; Benefield says menus will be similarly snappy on PS3).
While Sony has developed a user interface that puts most traditional cable operators’ to shame, Vue comes with big caveats. Sony has yet to work out a carriage deal with Disney, meaning ABC, Disney Channel and ESPN are nowhere to be seen. ESPN is the most valuable television property by a huge margin, and a staple of nearly every cable package. It's a glaring omission in a service aimed at young, male gamers.
“We do recognize that there are other channels our user group wants,” Benefield says, though he won’t directly mention ESPN. “We’re in discussions with networks.”
Another issue may be price. The basic-tier version of Vue costs $50 per month. A version that includes additional sports channels is $60 per month and an expanded cable equivalent that includes dozens more niche channels is $70 per month. In New York, Time Warner Cable offers a cable package that costs $40 per month for the first year and includes ESPN. But adding in the cost of renting a cable box that includes On-Demand shows and DVR functionality boosts the cost to $64 per month, to say nothing of installation fees. By avoiding these fees and their associated headaches (you don’t have to wait for a cable guy to come install Sony’s service), Vue can undercut its most direct competitors on price slightly. But it’s still more expensive than services like Netflix and Hulu, or even Dish Network’s live-TV streaming service Sling TV, which includes ESPN but not broadcast networks.
Vue is also limited in reach by being tied to PlayStation consoles. There's a version in the works for Apple's iPad, and Benefield says Vue will eventually spread to other streaming devices as well. For now, the app is aimed at a narrow base of consumers. To lure a big fish like ESPN, Vue may need to build up a subscriber base so large it can't be ignored. But with Sony only vaguely committing to expanding Vue to more cities at some point later in the year, 2015 seems like an experimental year for the service.
Despite the question marks, Sony's new TV service seems robust and well-implemented. It's an important early step ushering in an era where consumers where have considerably more choice in how they pay for TV. However, those choices will be much more convoluted than the old cable bundle. In addition to Vue and Sling TV, Apple is reportedly prepping a similar cable-like service, while networks like HBO, CBS and Nickelodeon are planning to offer their content on a stand-alone basis.
“What we’re beginning to see is a continuum of offers,” says Dan Cryan, a broadband media analyst at IHS. “I dont think we know yet what the sweet spots are along that spectrum.”