‘Anemic’ but not dead: Comcast’s Watchable is still looking to make a dent

One year in, Comcast’s Watchable is still a small fish in a growing ocean of video.

Comcast launched the free, ad-supported video platform last September. At launch, the platform featured roughly 160 shows from 30 digital publishers including BuzzFeed, Refinery29, Vice and several YouTube networks that people could watch on desktop and via Comcast’s mobile app and X1 set-top box. All of this content was licensed on a non-exclusive basis, which made Watchable a hub for shows and videos that viewers could already watch elsewhere.

“We’re using Watchable to learn and understand this space,” said Craig Parks, vp of programming for Watchable at Comcast. “We have been in the business of providing great content and content brands to consumers for 40, 50 years. The way we see it, Refinery29, Tastemade, the Defy brands, these are the future of media, and we have to pay attention to these guys.”

Viewership isn’t quite there
Trouble is, a hub for the “best of” web video is a tough sell when viewers are already used to watching their favorite digital shows elsewhere. Others from Verizon to Time Inc. have run into the same problem when they’ve tried to change viewer habits.

Early results for Watchable bear that out. One content partner, which has tens of millions of subscribers on YouTube, said it’s doing roughly 50,000 views per month on Watchable. Three other partners said their viewership was similarly small.

“Of the many distribution deals we have in place for our videos, this has been one of the least successful,” said one licensing partner, who described viewership as “anemic” but was unable to provide a hard number. This partner also cited the small residuals his company receives — Comcast pays Watchable licensing partners based on consumption — as evidence that Watchable has yet to make a significant dent in the video ecosystem.

ComScore does not have any video stats on Watchable but said the platform’s desktop and mobile sites had 201,000 unique visitors in June 2016.

“It’s not really a surprise because [Watchable has been offering] programming that’s available everywhere,” said David Grant, president of PopSugar Studios.

There are some promising signs: Mobile traffic is increasing 40 percent month-over-month, according to Comcast. The average session time for the Watchable app on the X1 boxes is between 30 and 40 minutes, the company added. And with the average Watchable video running four minutes, it suggests that people are sticking around to watch more than one video — at least when they fire up the app on a streaming TV device. The plan is to introduce Watchable on more streaming TV platforms, said Parks.

Content partners are not willing to write off Watchable just yet. “There’s not a lot of sunk cost against not a lot of revenue, and the upside is that they might become a larger buyer,” said the aforementioned licensing partner.

Betting on originals
In another promising sign, Watchable is moving into exclusive series. Watchable’s video library has already expanded to 52 content partners and nearly 400 shows, according to Parks. Last month, Watchable announced its first slate of nine exclusive series from content partners like Refinery29, PopSugar and Cut.com.

Refinery29 is producing “Ballin’ on a Budget,” in which rapper Awkwafina dispenses advice on how to have fun on a budget. PopSugar will make “Knock Knock,” which will follow fashion designer Rachel Antonoff as she takes viewers into the homes of stars like “SNL” cast member Aidy Bryant. Cut.com is doing three shows including “How to Human,” a part how-to, part scripted comedy series about a young woman trying to figure life out.

“Beginning with the cable networks, they’ve all followed a similar pattern: Start with repurposed programming, see what works, and based on that, buy original programming,” said Grant. “That’s been true of HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and it’s true of Watchable and these newer platforms.”

Comcast’s deals with original content partners are reminiscent of how other video-series buyers including Verizon’s Go90 and Spotify are approaching the space, by buying up exclusivity for a limited time period, or window. Comcast declined to reveal specifics but said its terms are in line with the rest of the market. Typically, first windows run for a year or two, sources said.

Comcast’s deals with original content partners include requirements for the partners — which have already built audiences online — to market the content to those fans, Parks said. (Go90 includes similar provisions in its deals.)

In it for the long haul — for now
Comcast readily admits that it took a cautious, conservative approach to Watchable — believing it was important to first uncover who the viewers were and what they wanted before making bigger bets on content.

A year in, Watchable’s gunning for the slightly older, “sophisticated” millennial, according to Parks. “We can’t be something for everybody. Others have tried and I have yet to see it work,” he said. “From the product side, it might work — YouTube is a giant search engine — but that’s not what we’re doing here.”

Watchable’s first crop of exclusive series are geared toward 24- to 34-year-olds. “How to Human,” for instance, is more likely to resonate with a young adult fresh out of a college than a teen.

“Craig’s been thoughtful about entering this space — getting to know everyone and where everything was going before he started picking up originals,” said Amy Emmerich, chief content officer at Refinery29. “They are training people to create a habit, and the earlier they can get in the better we can all be at making content that works in that environment.”

As Verizon, Spotify and Vessel have come to learn, building a new digital video business from scratch is difficult at best. Comcast is confident that its conservative, focused approach has put Watchable in a good position to continue growing.

Still, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Watchable — or any of its fellow new video services — are going to succeed. Content providers are willing to stick with them.

“The industry is insane right now with so many different platforms, publishers and brands looking to create their own networks,” said Mike Gaston, CEO of Cut.com. “It’s difficult to determine the value of any platform that’s just starting out. But with Watchable, Comcast is a huge company and has the ability to continue investing in content — so it just makes sense to partner with them.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all of these platforms are willing to cut checks. And at least in the case of Comcast and Verizon, failure in these digital video ventures won’t be the end of the world for them. As one media executive said, “Comcast is one of the world’s biggest media companies. Watchable is nothing more than an hors d’oeuvre for them.”


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