‘We’re still in the wild west’: Free, ad-supported streaming TV war heats up with Amazon, Pluto TV updates

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This Future of TV Briefing covers the latest in streaming and TV for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

ViacomCBS’s Pluto TV and Samsung’s Samsung TV Plus have emerged as the dominant free streamers carrying 24/7 channels, according to media executives that operate channels across various services including Pluto TV and Samsung TV Plus.

However, companies including Amazon, NBCUniversal and Roku are racing to close the gap. That burgeoning battleground “looks like what we saw in the early ’90s with the beginning of the cable ecosystem,” said one media executive.

And there’s a flurry of new platform and service features being touted as differentiators. For example, Amazon’s IMDb TV plans to introduce a more TV-like viewing experience and raise the streamer’s profile on its Fire TV connected TV platform. NBCUniversal distributes 24/7 streaming channels on its Peacock service, while its parent company owns Pluto TV’s original rival, Xumo. And Roku has increased the number of live channels on The Roku Channel and added a TV-style programming guide. 

Taken together, the companies appear to be making their services more familiar to traditional TV viewers, who are increasingly shifting their attention to streaming. By replicating the traditional TV experience, the streamers can flatten the adjustment curve for audiences and make it easier for people to find programs to watch and to keep watching.

Since March, streaming viewership has surged while cord cutting has accelerated, increasing the potential audience pool for these so-called FAST services. In April, the number of households in the U.S. that stream video increased by 5.2 million over the previous year to total 69.8 million households, according to Comscore. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ continue to dominate the streaming landscape, accounting for 77% of streaming viewership in the second quarter of 2020, according to Nielsen. Nonetheless, streamers outside of that group, such as the FAST services, saw their watch time increase by more than 57% in the second quarter to total more than 12 billion minutes, per the measurement firm. 

“We’re still in the wild west of [streaming] where things are developing slowly. On some platforms, there is going to be a convergence where parts of it mirror what traditional TV is or was like,” said Andrew Eisbrouch, COO of Law&Crime Network, which operates a 24/7 streaming channel across free and subscription-based streaming platforms.

Case in point: Amazon, this fall, will update the user interface for IMDb TV’s Fire TV app to automatically start playing videos when people open it, replicating the traditional TV experience, according to an Amazon spokesperson, who noted that an on-demand browsing option will remain within the app. The update will also add a programming guide featuring a combination of custom playlists and 24/7 channels. And later this year, Amazon will update its Fire TV’s TV-like live programming guide as well as its “Live” tab to include 24/7 streaming channels distributed on IMDb TV, the spokesperson said.

Other so-called FAST services have successfully co-opted the traditional TV experience. Both Pluto TV and Samsung TV Plus, for example, automatically stream programs upon launch, which industry executives say contributes to their platforms’ viewership. “It drives very high session times, way more than others with more of [an on-demand] interface,” said one streaming industry executive, referring to platforms that open up to a programming menu a la traditional TV’s on-demand section.

Pluto TV is not sitting on its hands, however. The streamer, which claims more than 33 million monthly active users, is updating its platform in ways that may make it more familiar to TV viewers. It is rearranging the channels it carries into 15 content categories with more intuitive category names, like “gaming and anime” replacing the previous “tech and geek” category and “home and DIY” becoming “life and style.” ( Pluto TV is also debuting more of its own channels that curate programming from other companies and adopting names for those channels like Classic TV Comedy and Pluto TV Love Stories. “This is all about the user and trying to get them into the content they’re trying to find as fast as possible,” said Scott Reich, svp of programming at Pluto TV.


“IGTV is like YouTube videos, and Facebook is like my mom taping the dog.”

— Non-industry friend

Stay tuned: Pandemic clauses in upfront deals

Some advertisers and their agencies have added a new entry to the list of flexibility demands they are making in this year’s elongated TV upfront negotiations. After many advertisers asked to be let out of their quarterly upfront commitments immediately at the outset of the coronavirus crisis in March, ad buyers now are asking for that option to be put in writing.

“If there is another pandemic in place, then we’re allowed out [of upfront commitments] — that’s something that is going to be new to our deal points,” said one agency executive.

It’s not yet clear how common these pandemic clauses are becoming or whether TV networks are pushing back against their inclusion in this year’s upfront contracts. But advertisers and their agencies have already been asking TV networks to make all kinds of new allowances for advertisers to cancel their commitments, ranging from shrinking cancelation windows to increasing cancelation amounts. Asking for the option to cancel in case of another global health crisis, by comparison, seems like a straightforward request.

Numbers don’t lie

25%: Streaming’s share of total TV usage in the second quarter of 2020.

$1.5 billion: AT&T’s asking price for the sale of Crunchyroll.

WTF is Triller?

The threat of TikTok being banned from operating in the U.S. has turned attention to the cottage industry of TikTok competitors that have emerged. Among them is Triller. If you’re interested in learning more about the app that has been billed by one of its co-owners as the “adult version” of TikTok, here’s a primer.

What we’ve covered

Shopify breaks into TV:

  • Shopify is far from the first brand to break into TV production, but it is providing a model for others to follow suit.
  • Shopify has not pushed for its projects to be larded with branding, and co-producers have found Shopify Studios to operate like a normal production firm.

Read more about Shopify here.

TV networks, streamers seek out show formats that can adapt to another shooting shutdown:

  • Wary of another production shutdown, show buyers are looking for projects that won’t need to go on hiatus.
  • Unscripted projects have emerged as particularly adaptable as well as cost-effective.

Read more about covid-proof production here.

Publishers’ test kitchens return to studios with new safety measures:

  • Tastemade, Trusted Media Brands’ Taste of Home, America’s Test Kitchen, BuzzFeed’s Tasty and Meredith’s EatingWell have started shooting in studios since June.
  • The publishers are taking different steps to return to the studios without jeopardizing employees’ health and safety.

Read more about publishers’ test kitchens here.

Why publishers aren’t prioritizing Instagram Reels:

  • The primary obstacle to publishers adopting Instagram Reels is the lack of immediate revenue.
  • The shorter duration of Instagram Reels compared to TikTok videos has also been a drawback.

Read more about Instagram Reels here.

With A-list talent sitting at home, publishers eye video collaborations:

  • Musicians’ and actors’ agents and managers are more receptive than ever to pitches from publishers.
  • However, a surge of requests means the requests don’t elicit an immediate yes.

Read more about publishers’ video collaborations here.

What we’re reading

TV’s changing of the guard:
Hollywood’s executive ranks are in a state of upheaval as traditional TV and film companies shift their focus to streaming, according to The New York Times. The article suggests that the urgency of the streaming wars and the demise of the traditional entertainment business has accelerated the shift to the point that there is no time for patience with old dogs learning new tricks. That sounds about right. The idea that streaming technocrats are more cutthroat that Hollywood’s old guard, though? I’m not so sure.

The racial divide inside Hollywood unions:
It can already take a lot of time and effort to get a union card in the entertainment industry. But it is even harder to join a union if you are Black or a member of another underrepresented group, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Directors Guild of America, for example, has 18,000 members but only 5% are Black and only 4% are Latinx. Adding urgency to the issue, non-union crew members were left out in the cold when production shut down in March and face lower pay and less protection when returning to work.


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