With PlayStation Vue, Sony looks to beat cable TV at its own game

This looks to be a year of seismic change for the television business. Cord-cutters and “cord-nevers” are making up an ever-increasing percentage of the American TV-watching public, and content providers are finally starting to cater to their desires, if in fits and starts.

So-called over-the-top offerings — channels delivered over the internet, not by a cable or satellite company — are starting to proliferate for individual networks such as CBS and HBO, not just services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Other companies are bundling key cable networks in slimmed-down packages for prices comparable to a typical cable subscription. Dish Network launched Sling TV in February, charging $20 per month for 17 channels including ESPN. Apple is reportedly preparing to roll out its own service this fall with 25 channels.

Sony is trying a different tack with PlayStation Vue. The streaming service, which launches today in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, is a bold attempt to replace your existing cable package. It’s priced to match, with monthly subscriptions available for $49.99, $59.99 and $69.99. Average monthly prices for a U.S. pay-TV package range from $22.63 for basic cable to $64.41 for the most popular tier, according to an FCC report based on 2013 data.

Instead of cost, Sony is looking to compete on Vue’s feature set, which the company contends is better, more modern, than anything else on the market. With a channel lineup that’s currently missing some heavy hitters, that may not be enough.

A Vue of TV’s future

Sony’s main objective with Vue is to make it easier for consumers to watch their favorite TV shows whenever they want, and find new shows they might like.

Microsoft attempted to tackle that problem in a different way with the Xbox One. The company threw in its lot with traditional cable and satellite providers, building an HDMI-in port into the console and developing a modern interface to overlay atop a legacy pay-TV feed. The system’s OneGuide was meant for Kinect voice navigation, but now, nearly 16 months into the Xbox One’s life, its TV functionality and the Kinect itself both seem to have fallen by the wayside. Instead, Microsoft brought Sling TV to the Xbox One yesterday.

Vue is aimed at reinventing the TV experience that you get from cable and satellite companies, whose set-top boxes tend to feature clunky interfaces and molasses-slow navigation for program guides, on-demand offerings and DVR content. Describing Sony’s goal for Vue, Lempel said, “It should be a great experience well beyond anything that’s existed in an industry that really hasn’t innovated in years, and a great price to go along with that, to get at the content you want.”

Not quite a Murderers’ Row

Sony is working hard to ensure the content you want will be available on Vue. Live television channels form the backbone of Vue’s offering, with 83 of them available at launch today. The list is highlighted by local broadcast feeds for CBS, Fox and NBC, which set Vue apart from other TV-over-internet services like Sling TV. If you can get the local stations for a market in which Vue is available — Chicago, New York and Philadelphia at launch — you can use the service.

“Our users have told us that they want a custom, local experience,” said Lempel. “They want their local news and local sports when they look for TV service.”

Vue’s Channel Lineup

Sony is offering three tiers of PlayStation Vue service in monthly subscriptions: “Access” for $49.99, “Core” for $59.99 and “Elite” for $69.99. Access offers more than 50 of Vue’s 83 launch channels; you can see the full list below. Core throws in Turner Classic Movies and some sports networks, while Elite adds more than 25 sports, lifestyle, music and family channels.

Broadcast: CBS, CBS Plus, Cozi TV, Exitos, FOX, MyNetwork, NBC, Telemundo.

Network: AMC (April), Animal Planet, BET, Bravo, Cartoon/Adult Swim, CBS, CMT, CNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, Destination America, Discovery Channel, Discovery Family, DIY, E!, Esquire, Food Network, Fox Business, Fox News Networks, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, FX, FXX, HGTV, HLN, Investigation Discovery, MSNBC, MTV, MTV2, Nat Geo, NBC Sports Network, Nick Jr., Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, OWN, Oxygen, Science, Spike, Syfy, TBS, TLC, TNT, TruTV, Travel Channel, TV Land, USA Network, VH1.

“There’s a lot of great TV programming out there, but getting at it isn’t always that easy,” said Eric Lempel, vice president for Sony Network Entertainment’s business and operations in the Americas, during a Vue demo this week.

Local channels are the primary impediment to rolling out Vue beyond the three launch cities. Lempel said Sony will bring the service to “other big markets” later this year, including Los Angeles. PlayStation head Andrew House told the Wall Street Journal last week that Sony hopes to launch Vue nationwide by the end of 2015.

Vue does not currently offer ABC; in fact, the network’s parent company, Disney, is missing entirely. That massive hole in Vue’s lineup — Disney-owned networks include the Disney Channel, ESPN, ABC and History, and the first two are available on Sling TV — spans a wide range of audiences, and HBO is absent as well. Lempel said Vue’s offering will grow over time, and while he didn’t provide specifics, he said Sony is “talking to a lot of other networks.”

Those discussions are paying off already. Between the announcement of Vue in November and its launch today, Sony expanded the lineup with nine channels from Turner, such as TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network. And AMC Networks’ channels, including AMC and IFC, will arrive in April, the same month as the final season of Mad Men.

Sony is hoping that Vue’s channel lineup and its forward-looking features will make the service compelling. Considering how impressive the features are, the company may be right.

The Vue experience

The first thing we noticed about Vue was its speed. During a demo of Vue on PS4, moving around in the app appeared to work about as quickly as navigating the PS4 dashboard itself. (You must use a controller; Vue doesn’t support the PlayStation Camera’s voice commands.)

Live TV channels sit in a horizontal list; you can also see a grid-style view of everything that’s on right now, or scroll through a standard program guide. Vue lets you mark certain channels as favorites, and will provide recommendations based on the channels and shows you’ve watched and favorited.

Vue’s crown jewel is its cloud-based DVR, which is as good as, if not better than, the functionality offered by Comcast’s top-of-the-line X1 cable box. At almost any time, you can press R1 to add a show to a list of up to 500 favorites, “My Shows.” Doing so initiates recordings of every airing of that TV series across the channels in Vue’s lineup. The DVR stores those recordings for 28 days — in the cloud, not on your console’s hard drive — and they’re listed in My Shows in the order in which the episodes originally aired.

Lempel demonstrated the feature with The Simpsons. The most recent listing in My Shows was the new episode from the series’ current season, which aired this past Sunday on Fox. Then Lempel began scrolling to the left, where the DVR had picked up dozens of Simpsons episodes that had aired in syndication on FXX over the past 28 days; the oldest ones in the list dated back to the early 1990s. Finally, Lempel selected one of the episodes, and it began playing within a few seconds. The quality started out pixelated, but soon transitioned to sharp HD.

PlayStation Vue launch screenshots

As with any DVR content, it’s possible to pause, rewind or fast-forward My Shows recordings, and pause live TV. Vue also offers a robust set of filters in its Explore section, allowing you to look for content by type, genre, length, rating, channel and more. This search encompasses live TV, My Shows recordings and on-demand programming. In addition, Vue supports all the authenticated streaming apps for the networks in its lineup, so you’ll be able to log in to apps such as NBC Sports Live Extra and NCAA March Madness Live with your PSN ID.

Will it succeed?

From our half-hour demo this week, it appears that Vue delivers a TV watching experience that easily surpasses typical offerings from cable and satellite providers. Vue’s interface is a breeze to navigate, and the service’s cloud-based DVR feels like the future. Plus, customers can run simultaneous Vue streams on up to three consoles — although only one can be a PS4, due to the console’s login restrictions — with a single subscription.

Sony is also touting the simplicity of Vue’s pricing. Traditional TV providers like Comcast offer a confusing mess of bundles, often with multi-year contracts in which the monthly price increases over time. Vue’s subscriptions have no long-term commitments or cancellation fees. And there’s no equipment charge beyond the requirement of a PS3 or PS4 — or soon, an iPad, but not PlayStation TV — since the Vue app is a free download.

Yet the price for Vue is steep. The channel lineup in the cheapest tier, which costs $49.99 a month, will likely suffice for many customers. But comparable channel packages from companies like Verizon and Time Warner Cable are available at similar prices or even less.

That’s without factoring in a broadband internet subscription, which, of course, is required for Vue. The combined cost would approach if not exceed $100 per month for most people. At that level, it’s still cheaper to simply sign up for a TV/internet bundle from a cable or satellite provider — especially when you’re guaranteed all four of the major broadcast networks, plus cable mainstays like ESPN.

Sony contends that Vue’s cutting-edge functionality is worth the price of admission, and is offering a seven-day free trial to new customers.

“We’re the first ones to bring network television, cable networks, a virtual DVR and catch-up TV all in one place, and make it really easy to navigate and really easy to find what you want,” said Lempel, speaking about internet-based TV services.

“It’s really about the experience. And what we wanted to design was an incredible, innovative experience as it pertains to viewing TV — really giving you the ability to control your experience, and do away with the hassle and the friction that you have today. So the experience is something that we think will really excite people.”

Even if that’s true, Vue’s price and the gaps in its launch lineup are likely to temper that excitement. Vue sits in an uncomfortable middle ground: Its price isn’t much lower than standard cable TV, but its current channel lineup can’t match those of similarly priced cable packages.