Q&A: Sling Media Founder Blake Krikorian

Krikorian on the iPad streaming scuffle, how Sling has stayed above the legal fray and why EchoStar's Sling strategy has fallen short

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

April 25, 2011

24 Min Read
Q&A: Sling Media Founder Blake Krikorian

Before MSOs and programmers started hitching themselves to the TV Everywhere bandwagon, there was Sling Media Inc. , the scrappy startup that made "place-shifting" a mainstream term.

Sling eventually caught the eye of Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) Chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen, who bought it for $380 million in 2007 and proceeded to tuck Sling into his newly spun-off tech and set-top unit, EchoStar Corp. LLC (Nasdaq: SATS). Ergen's move looks pretty shrewd now as the entire pay TV industry figures out how to make all of its linear and on-demand content available on tablets, smartphones, PCs and connected TVs. (See EchoStar to Buy Sling Media and EchoStar Ready to Split.)

Since then, Blake Krikorian, who, along with his brother Jason, founded Sling in 2004 and pioneered the TV Everywhere movement, has been relatively quiet, but he hasn't exactly been sitting idle. For example, his firm, iD8 Group Holdings, played a big role in the sale of adaptive bit rate pioneer Move Networks Inc. to Dish. (See EchoStar Buys Move Networks.)


And he's certainly no less opinionated almost four years after selling Sling. In an interview last week with Light Reading Cable, Krikorian gave his view on the recent iPad app battles between MSOs and programmers and why he believes Sling has managed to sidestep big legal battles so far. He also explained how his vision for Sling has fallen a bit short under EchoStar's watch, and what Ergen & Co. should be doing with his baby.

Plus, the faithful San Francisco Giants fan got us up to speed on what he's up to now while serving up his hopeful prediction for how this season will shake out for the reigning World Series champs.

For more, check out the edited transcript:


— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

Light Reading Cable: As cable operators and telcos suddenly move forward with TV Everywhere services, what's stood out as your "I-told-you-so" moment, since some of these guys gave you plenty of push back in the early going?

Krikorian: (Laughs) Just about everything makes me want to say I told you so. It's been entertaining yet frustrating to watch because things move at such a glacial pace and it seems like it takes a while for people to even comprehend not just where the consumer is going, but understand their business and what their business really means.

First off, the fact that the MSOs saw us [Sling Media] as a threat was and continues to be, to me, baffling. It basically spoke to their inability to understand what business they're in and… really spend any time with a technology and seeing where it could fit into the value chain.

And I thought we were quite articulate in explaining what place-shifting and the Slingbox meant to the MSOs and that it [represented] their ability to maintain their relevance in this world. Until right toward the end when we sold, the majority of them saw us as this foe. But what the Slingbox provided them was the ability to leverage off of all the assets that they have, meaning the set-top in people's homes or the full channel lineup, and letting people extend that cable line to the consumer wherever they are and on any device.

If they would embrace that technology, it's the perfect combatant to all of these over-the-top things that we were point towards, telling them, it's coming, it's coming, it's coming – whether it's Netflix, whether it's Hulu, whether it's whatever.

One of the big questions you're going to see now is how do networks get credit for all these different types of views. The thing we also proved out is that the Slingbox technology fit in perfectly and seamlessly with the Nielsen ratings system as it was today.

Basically, if you were place-shifting all of this content instead of, for example, streaming it from Time Warner Cable servers from an iPad, if you were doing it from a Slingbox, all of that watching was being metered and viewed.

And there was concern about upstream bandwidth that people were slinging outside of their home.

Light Reading Cable: Isn't that still a concern?

Krikorian: We looked at the data with a lot of the MSOs and they realized that the peak usage was actually during the day, like 2 p.m., [when customers] were using it to sling [video] at work or when they were out on the road. And those times were not the peak usage times anyway, so it wasn't really taxing the network. If people were doing tons and tons of prime-time upstream slinging then that might have been a different story. But that's not what the use case was.

It's really interesting to see it wasn't until we were just about to be acquired that some of the operators started to wake up and realize that… this could've been a great thing. In hindsight, I think they look at it and if this technology would've been put in all these set-top boxes, number one, the consumer experience would've been absolutely amazing. Number two, it would have worked great for everybody, not just for operators, but also the networks.

Sure, the networks would've pushed and said we should have extra revenue for the place-shifting functionality, but that's all a basic, simple negotiation that really didn't require them to format their content any differently.

Next page: Cable Joins The Party

Light Reading Cable: Why have MSOs warmed up to the idea now? Was it strictly because their video business was being threatened by over-the-top and other types of video service providers?

Krikorian: I think there are a few things. You can throw the networks into this as well. The thing I found somewhat hilarious was that there was a period of time there when we were trying to explain to the operators and the networks that what we're doing fits into your existing economic models and you guys, together, have a symbiotic relationship here.

A lot of the networks were looking at this and… they didn't really understand their business, either, to be honest. They were chuckling how they were sort of going around the operators and starting to build these relationship directly with the consumer and everything was free and ad-supported, and even some stuff was subscription. What they were failing to understand is who pays their bills.

Light Reading Cable: So some of these guys just forgot about their reliance on a dual-revenue stream?

Krikorian: Right, it's like, dude, do you know who's paying you money? What are you doing here? The hilarious thing was that video sort of laughed at the music industry. We're not going to make the same mistakes as those guys. Weren't those guys a bunch of idiots?

The ironic thing that was happening with all of these online video efforts was that these networks were basically destroying their business themselves without having anybody else do it for them. At some point, these guys are going to wake up and understand that a lot of them have this dual revenue stream. And those that didn't have the dual-revenue stream, meaning the broadcast networks, were going to be looking for retrans fees at some point in time.

All of them were going to realize this and what was going to happen is that the contract renewals were going to come up between the networks and the operators. And the operators... should have been absolutely raising hell about what was going on. Instead they were just asleep at the wheel.

The thing that was going to ensue and what has happened… both sides are going to go back and try to stuff that genie back into the bottle.

Next page: Picking Sides In The TV Everywhere Battle

Light Reading Cable: We're seeing a lot of that now, as both sides are clashing a bit. As you look at these fights going on between Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and some major programmers, who's right and who's wrong. Or who's more right and more wrong?

Krikorian: They're both to blame in so many areas here. Somewhere you had some executive come up with this great term called "TV Everywhere" that's going to revolutionize the world and meanwhile I can't tell you how far back my eyes went into the back of my head.

Everything is now going to be authenticated. While there are going to be some interesting battles… they all kind of thought it was a negotiation just between the networks and the operators and they could just go back and stuff everything back into the bottle, provided they come up with their own terms – the terms that actually work for both of them. That's not trivial, as we're seeing.

But what they failed to understand was that once you get this stuff out there and you've whetted the consumer's appetite, the consumer is not going to suddenly accept you taking this stuff and throwing it back behind a pay wall. So there's going to be some attention given on the piracy side as well if they are successful putting stuff behind a pay wall that they had put out for free. That part has not played out yet, but it'll be an interesting one to watch.

Meanwhile, the consumer expectation is growing to be able to access this stuff for free or to have the flexibility. The thing that we saw coming was telling these guys from 2004 on that there is going to be so many more displays other than that television set. In response, they [believed] that none of that content was going to be high-definition and super high quality.

You now have all these different displays and the operators are saying to themselves that they are seeing these over-the-top services as a threat, seeing the Netflixs as something that is very problematic.

Who's to blame there? It's hard to say, but the funny thing is, if there's one lesson I've learned through all of this it's that if you look back at the history of video and any new technology, any new service, whether it was the VCR or cable television itself, the fact of the matter is smash-and-grab has been the only model that has pushed the ball forward, which is really a sad commentary.

The history of cable TV is smash-and-grab, so they're getting back to this smash-and-grab plan, which, as unfortunate as that is, is the only way anything ever gets done.

Light Reading Cable: How fearful are you that these early battles could bring the TV Everywhere momentum to a screeching halt?

Krikorian: Now that the cat's out of the bag and consumers have their expectation set that they can watch stuff on all these devices, if they don't figure out a way to make some of this work, people are going to resort to piracy.

In the long run, it's a good thing that the entities here are attempting to push the ball forward. Hopefully because they make so much money together they'll figure out a model that works, even though it will be sub-optimal, versus what they would've been able to work at an early stage before the whole industry starts to get devalued, which is exactly what's happening now.

Light Reading Cable: Why do you think Sling has been able to avoid any nasty legal entanglements so far? There was a moment, in 2006, when HBO gave Sling the Evil Eye, but nothing really came out of it.

Krikorian: Earlier it was the [sports] leagues and the local broadcasters. If I was to look back, there are a few things I'm pretty proud of and a few things we could've done much better. Probably the single greatest accomplishment that we had in the history as an independent company was that we were never sued.

We did our homework on how we would implement and made sure we were doing so in a way that looks at all the legal precedents and the arguments out there so we could empower consumers but also be very respectful of copyright. And we put certain limitations in the product, such as streaming to only one person at one time.

One of the things I also learned was following our instinct in terms of not just sitting in a little bubble in Silicon Valley and looking at the media companies as a bunch of knuckleheads that don't understand technology. We decided it made more sense to reach out to these various player and get to know them and try to explain to them pro-actively that this is what this technology really is and not let the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] get out of hand. People immediately have a knee-jerk reaction when there's a new technology that empowers consumers. They come up with the worst nightmare scenarios before understanding how a technology company is approaching some of these things.

Getting out there early and having these discussions with programmers and with operators, and some of them were quite heated, were, to their credit, appreciated.

I hear this from several of the media companies when we get back together... they remind me that they really remember us taking the steps to reach out. Even though we sometimes had disagreements, we tried to understand the other side and explain that this was not harmful but to actually throw out ideas on how we could turn this into something that was a big additional money maker for them.

Next page: Grading EchoStar

Light Reading Cable: You sold Sling to EchoStar in 2007. Are they fulfilling the vision you had for Sling and its technology?

Krikorian: To my frustration, and the guys from EchoStar hear quite a bit from me on this, I think the implementation of the product has not evolved as I would have liked to see them evolve it.

Light Reading Cable: What's missing? What haven't they done that you would've liked to see them do?

Krikorian: If you look at the product itself, it hasn't evolved. As powerful as it is and maybe ahead of its time, whether it's making the connectivity even easier and faster and solving some network set-up challenges that people have and [making] it easier and quicker to get to the content that you want.

Meshing, for example, the place-shifted content and augmenting it with online content – all of these things we had on our roadmap that we were developing, they haven't been able to really evolve and innovate as fast as you probably can as a smaller company.

I think part of the challenge there, and I don't want people to view this as a total pot-shot at Charlie [Ergen], but these operators – EchoStar and Dish included – they have to realize in this day and age that your assets aren't just the patents that you own or the birds in the sky or the infrastructure you have.

In this day and age, it's about intellectual capital, and that's a very valuable asset. Frankly, I think we had some interesting cultural challenges as Sling -- which is a Silicon Valley company, and clearly intellectual property is very important – sort of meshes with an established organization that, in my opinion, didn't quite value intellectual capital as much as it needed to.

To Charlie's credit, at least he had the guts to embrace this technology and see where it could go and realized he was smarter than most in terms of realizing how important this was to his company and to his industry. For that he deserves tremendous credit. But then, it's not just about acquiring these things, it's about execution. I think that's where [the deal] has fallen short, including if you look at just the marketing of these products. Few people even know that the 922 (Dish's 'SlingLoaded' set-top/receiver), for example, even exists. They have not done a tremendous job of marketing [it] and telling the story.

Light Reading Cable: But EchoStar, not Dish, is the one in control of Sling's products and technology. Don't they have a bigger role in that area?

Krikorian: The other thing that I think was unfortunate was that when we were acquired that Dish and EchoStar were going to break into two companies.

The notion of splitting the company in two, and taking all the Sling team and functionality and meshing it with the EchoStar functionality and technology provided an awesome opportunity to create a new technology provider that was agnostic, but also had close enough ties to at least one captive customer, meaning Dish Network, that could really push the ball forward.

Light Reading Cable: But isn't that what they've been doing?

Krikorian: Well, here's the thing. The thing that would've made a lot of sense was for that company to truly be agnostic, I would argue that… it would be difficult for another U.S. operator to work closely with EchoStar if their Chairman and controlling shareholder is also the Chairman and controlling shareholder of one of their competitors.

Light Reading Cable: So, what's the solution?

Krikorian: Armchair quarterbacking, I think a huge opportunity would have been, and possibly could be, to pull out John Malone's playbook from 25 to 30 years ago, which is what TCI [Tele-Communications Inc.] did with General Instrument [Motorola bought GI for $11 billion 1999], is allow this company to actually bring in another major operator as an equity shareholder in EchoStar.

Consequently what that would mean is that company would be running very much independently. There would not be one controlling shareholder. Say if one big operator, or even a couple, would take an equity investment and an equity stake in EchoStar they would, one, have a strategic interest in seeing that company successful; and two, unequivocally every single operator would have agree that not only the roadmap we were working on but the technology and the team and the products we were developing would have been far superior to the stuff they were already buying from some of the other folks, such as Scientific Atlanta (now Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)) and Motorola, who didn't have a lot of incentive for innovating much over the years.

So they would've gotten better products and they would've had an equity stake and financial stake in seeing this company be successful. They saw the roadmap of everything that we were doing, which was dead-on right, when you're talking about converged, multi-platform, all of the things you are seeing happen today we were already executing on back then.

That public company would've had a tremendous pop in its value. It's actually a very simple plan and it's borrowing a lot from what John Malone did with TCI, which pumped a bunch of business into GI and took warrants and equity in the company and, consequently, GI's stock took off and TCI got product at essentially at a reduced price based on the value that was created in the value of the stock.

Light Reading Cable: Is it too late for something like that?

Krikorian: I still think it's a possibility, but what I think you have here is you have personalities, and there's a lot of pride on all sides, and sometimes people think if you just have the technology these other guys... will have to work with you at some point and be in an involuntary partnership regardless of the equity of management structure of the entities.

I think the status quo will make that difficult, but you're only talking about a couple of guys that have to make a decision to change things and to embrace a different type of structure, in which case it could happen.

Next page: What's Next?

Light Reading Cable: What are you focused on now as the head of id8 Group Holdings?

Krikorian: I've done a few projects on the investing and deal-making side. What id8 Group is… it was my brother's and my firm before we even started Sling. Back in 1999 we started it and we were very much a hybrid, trying to figure out how to catalyze the industry and we did a few different things. On one side we would incubate new technologies and new products, but with the strong bias of not starting new companies.

But if your only business model, like a venture capitalist, was to create new companies every time, that's not being as pure to the opportunity as you really should be. Sometimes they should be new companies, but other times they should actually be new products or extensions in existing companies.

It just so happened that there were things we were incubating, the Slingbox being one of them, and we saw the roadmap that some of the stuff had and it really started looking more and more like a company. We frankly didn't even want to start Sling. It was: let's try to incubate this stuff and spin it into an established company.

Light Reading Cable: Why was Sling was the exception to the rule?

Krikorian: This goes back to what I was saying about intellectual capital and execution and so forth. We not only saw that there was a new opportunity to create a new brand, we had a ten-year roadmap of all the things we could be building under this company, but it's not just about building great products, it was about the execution of sales and the marketing. A lot of times we'd spin these technologies into the big companies and let's just say they didn't get done like you'd like to see them get done.

We decided to go against our grain… and we started Sling and put id8 into hibernation mode. Now after selling the company, it was: Where the heck am I going to land? As a landing pad for right now, we reformed id8 group, and it's really just myself and I have a few people that I have come in and come out on a part-time basis right now.

The vision of id8 still applies that one side I was doing investing and some advisory work, whether that was Clicker (CBS bought Clicker.com earlier this year), which I invested in and I was on the board of and saw the view there that there's going to be many different sources of content. It's not going to be one Web site.

Light Reading Cable: And what about the Move deal?

Krikorian: Move has a tremendous set of technologies… amazing product. But, again, it's not just about building the product and the technology, you have to know how to execute on them and find the right models to bring to market and manage the company appropriately . Unfortunately for them they made some bad decisions that didn't quite work out so there were some awesome assets available and I was called in by some of the investors, one of them being Steamboat Ventures, which is a Disney venture firm, and they asked me to help out in some way and I ended up getting involved. We thought the best opportunity was to sell it to an established player, and that's what we did.

Light Reading Cable: What's on your list now?

Krikorian: One of the things I've been doing for the past two years is we started working on a pretty extensive remodel of our house and I decided to focus on the home automation and media distribution side and kind of build what Home 2.0 should be.

Essentially my house is a full lab, much to the chagrin of my wife (laughs). Instead of going out and hiring somebody, what I decided to do was define and build out these experiences… whether it's writing all the code or terminating fiber and copper and whatever else is in this house. I've been doing everything myself, which is both educational and stupid in terms of the time it takes. But it gives me a lot of insight into some of the things I've been thinking about.

I continue to look at this home control and this security and media distribution industry and think there are some huge opportunities , but I haven't decided to pull the trigger on anything major yet. But as part of this exploration of things I have done, I ended up writing an application that is an Android app that will be shipping at the end of this month. It's called "R2," and it's essentially an application that has Android devices talking to Crestron [Electronics Inc.] – they're kind of the 800-pound gorilla in the control space.

Crestron had and iPhone and iPad app that talked to their systems, but they haven't done anything with Android, and I saw an opportunity with these proprietary touch panels going away that I ended up building this app and I've got 400 dealers and developers all around the world that are beta-testing this thing right now. It's basically a hobby gone horribly wrong. If I'm lucky, it will pay for one or two speakers in my home theater.

Next page: Baseball

Light Reading Cable: Let's turn to baseball, since it was part of the reason you and your brother conceived of Sling (they wanted to watch the team when they were out of town). How did you celebrate the Giants' World Series victory last year?

Krikorian: The coolest thing, for me at least, is that we were at a benefit concert down ... in Mountain View and it was the clinching game of the series, and it was such a fitting moment. I was sitting here in the amphitheater enjoying the concert but watching the Giants win the World Series on my phone, and behind me there were probably 25 or 30 people that had come over to watch it.

Light Reading Cable: Slinging to your cell phone. How appropriate.

Krikorian: Yes , and I was thinking, you know, if anything, I'm so happy that we made this product because I was able to enjoy this. But it was it hilarious because when they won, the 30 people around us were jumping up and down and screaming and hugging each other. But at this benefit concern they had a bunch of older bands and stuff and Billy Idol was on stage. I don't think Billy Idol was very good, but there was this moment when he got this tremendous applause, and I'm convinced he thought his career was possibly renewed at this show. Little did he know that it was this group of folks who were cheering that the Giants won the Series.

Light Reading Cable: Will they repeat the feat? They certainly made my Rockies look pretty ordinary [last week].

Krikorian: I still can't believe they won. It's like a surreal thing. I'm so used to just being a loser for so long that it doesn't seem real that they won the first time. If we can just make the playoffs again I'll be happy. But, man, they look pretty damn good.

It's kind of like when the Niners beat Dallas in that NFC championship game in '81. Sometime those events just change the course of a franchise. They just have a different kind of confidence and swagger. But they all seem like they're like really nice guys. They're not like Mr. Bonds.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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