Comcast's Stream gets mixed reviews, but will likely keep Sling TV on its toes

Pay-TV giant Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) announced that it will begin testing Stream, its new over-the-top linear video service, in the Boston market very soon, followed by Chicago and Seattle. The $15 per month service will expand nationwide by 2016. But despite being offered by one of the top cable providers in the U.S., Stream may struggle against Sling TV and other linear offerings, if tech experts' reviews of the service bear out.

Stream, unlike other Comcast offerings, will be available directly on subscribers' devices, such as their smartphones and tablets. Viewers will have access to the major broadcast networks as well as HBO.

However, it's not a completely open OTT offering: Subscribers must also sign up for Xfinity Internet, Comcast's high-speed broadband service, in order to get Stream.

"Comcast isn't competing in the broader marketplace like Dish Network's (NASDAQ: DISH) Sling TV or even Sony's PlayStation Vue Web TV services. Stream is only available to Comcast customers," wrote Top Tech News' Jennifer Le Claire. "But it could keep Comcast customers from straying to these newfangled competitors."

Wired's Brian Barrett was much more critical of the service. "Right now, Comcast doesn't have a streaming service any more than an acorn has limbs and leaves," he wrote. The rundown of Stream's features was not encouraging, with just "a handful of channels," device-only streaming (no streaming to the TV), cloud DVR storage, and access to Streampix, "a collection of mostly old or unfamiliar on-demand movies."

He noted that the service is IP-managed, meaning that it can only be used in the home, and that it has a two-device limit for simultaneous streams. Further, Stream won't be available as an app on devices like Roku or Amazon Fire TV. Barrett was also baffled by the fact that Comcast already offers a skinny bundle "that's nearly identical to the streaming version," is significantly cheaper, and can be viewed on a regular TV.

Despite the criticism, Comcast does have the distinction of being the first broadband provider to go to market with a linear TV option, Re/code's Peter Kafka notes.

And it may pose a significant threat to Sling TV based on sheer subscriber numbers alone.

Dish Network-owned Sling TV has about 250,000 subscribers to date, and reportedly has been limited to just 2 million subscribers by the networks Dish does business with. That's significantly less than Comcast's 23 million broadband subscribers--even if a small percentage of them sign up for Stream, Comcast will jet ahead of Sling TV in this area. Sling TV also doesn't have agreements with major broadcast networks, meaning it only offers cable channels.

Stream adds yet another layer of unwelcome complexity to the OTT market, as well. Pay-TV providers had long fretted that premium networks like HBO and Showtime going over the top would cannibalize their viewers. Both cable networks have now launched standalone streaming services. Sling TV offers HBO as an add-on to its basic service. Now Comcast is trying to tempt its subscribers with an OTT offering that includes HBO.

With an offering that may only confuse some consumers, Stream's subscriber numbers alone may not be the best indicator of success.

For more:
- see FierceCable's coverage
- TopTechNews has this story
- see this Wired story
- Re/code has this story

Related articles:
Comcast stream will 'cannibalize' MSO's core video services, analyst says
Comcast to answer Sling TV with $15-per-month OTT pay-TV service, Stream
Parks: Meeting consumer demand for TV Everywhere and OTT services
Verizon's ad-supported OTT pricing may signal new business models to come