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30 July 2020

Is relinquishing data to Amazon, Roku worth extra distribution revenue?

It was brave move by organizers of the OTT Blitz Week to place a proper technology firm on a panel alongside a mix of media organizations, but boy did it pay off, albeit probably not in the way FierceVideo and The StreamTV Show had in mind.

During one of the opening panel sessions discussing distribution strategies, Symphony MediaAI was the only non-content company present – brushing shoulders with executives from Crunchyroll, Tastemade and PBS Digital – which the US revenue and churn management specialist used to its advantage.

Symphony MediaAI’s SVP of Sales and Business Development, Andrew Thompson, warned players in the direct to consumer OTT video game not to get complacent. This was a poignant reminder at a time when email inboxes are regularly bombarded by off-the-chart video streaming metrics. “Churn rates for D2C OTT tend to be on the low end of 10% to 20%, like Netflix which is leading the way, but some churn rates are reaching as much as 50%,” Thompson claimed.

Symphony MediaAI, a division of the broad-reaching SymphonyAI, essentially helps maximize relationships between media groups – like those on the panel – with distribution partners and core subscribers. This is a SaaS-based audit, revenue management and subscriber management company, which claims to work with about 95% of programmers in the US, from big boys like Showtime and Hulu, to smaller players Pluto TV and Xumo.

Thompson teased that Symphony MediaAI has new features coming this fall for its AI-backed engine to create a churn tool that can be proactive and provide D2C platforms with 90 days’ advance notice of churn. For example, Symphony MediaAI’s engine could alert a customer by saying, “Hey, this 20% subset of consumers have a really high probability of churn, so here are some things we’ve thought of to be proactive about it and prevent churn.” Thompson added that Symphony MediaAI is really trying to reduce expenses around customer acquisition, which as we know can be pretty high, and instead maximize the consumers that these D2C services have today.

This set the scene for a refreshing content viewpoint from Jeremy Strauss, Global Head of Business Development for food media network Tastemade, one reminiscent of some of Faultline’s recent outbursts aimed at the overhyped so-called super aggregators.

Referring to Tastemade’s many distribution partners, Strauss said, “I’d love these services to just their cull channel lists. Again, they are coming back around to cable and saying, ‘Oh look, we now have 100 or 200 channels’ when they really only need 30 channels. But this has still been a really successful business for us. The reason for people cutting the cord is not because they don’t want linear content, it’s because of price point frustration and an overabundance of channels in the integrated model.”

Tastemade is on a pretty good run just two and half years into its journey, most recently landing on Peacock. “The fact we can compete with likes of the Viacom networks says we can really resonate with fans. But the more exciting opportunity is device OEMs. Every device manufacturer has copied the Roku Channels playbook, where users who want to cut the cord want an alternative, but don’t want the Netflix all-you-can-eat model, so we are seeing the success of FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) services,” continued Strauss.

Tastemade is itself a model for how to make the leap from being a social media company, to becoming a fully-fledged media outfit. Tastemade has expanded its reach and launched its own dedicated applications, but – interestingly – Strauss still regards other platforms as even more important to a company like Tastemade. “I don’t think we’ll ever force users into consumption behavior. We’re not of the belief that companies that are successful are companies that force you into a certain behavior, so we are all about giving consumers choice,” he added.

From one Jeremy to another, this time to Head of Business Development at PBS Digital, Jeremy Teres, who presented the positives of getting distribution deals with the FAST services, while staying realistic about the monetization difficulties.

“We have original series on YouTube TV and Xumo, and we’re looking at how to get broadcast content onto these platforms too. But we don’t have ads at PBS, and we can’t take programmatic ads, so we would need to take in a new set of guidelines to incorporate this. We’re having discussions with platforms on how to use increasingly intelligent dynamic ad insertion systems that are also localized. Normally these platforms can’t geofence, so theoretically we could take a national feed and localize this with their ad insertion – to insert local programs or insert stations IDs. Maybe we could even have a call to action from these platforms that says ‘please support your local stations with a spot’,” stated Teres, hardly stopping for air.

PBS Digital has distribution deals with most major devices and channels, including 3 channels on Amazon. “This is really important for us to drive revenue as an alternative source. These are not always localized so serve a somewhat different purpose, but brand affinity for us is important even though we don’t fully own all the viewer data,” he said.

Teres conceded that the only platform that didn’t work for PBS Digital was Xbox games consoles, so this app has since been sent into the sunset, which was in stark contrast to the next panelist – Alden Budill, Head of Global Partnerships and Content Strategy at US streaming and distribution company Crunchyroll, owned by Otter Media.

Budill immediately pointed to the “extremely strong” overlap between anime fans and gamers, which she claimed is as high as 90%. “It makes a natural symbiosis for our content and distribution to go to games consoles. Whether this is correlation or causation, we also see much of our viewership on big screens, which is perhaps because it helps seeing bigger subtitles). We are quite platform-agnostic, but when it comes to anime we try to be thoughtful about different platforms and strengths and how they can help us broaden the funnel,” said Budill.

Last but not least, day 1 of OTT Blitz Week also graced us with a cameo from Gabriel Sauerhoff, SVP of Digital Distribution at Discovery, who provided an update on a crazy year for Discovery.

This year has seen Discovery launch more category-oriented, or vertical-orientated services as Sauerhoff coined them, as well as the more aggressive international D2C businesses including Dplay – which is currently live in 10 markets, including many major European territories and Japan, with more to come later. Direct to consumer opportunities around the world continue to ramp up for Discovery, with other notable highlights including Eurosport, its multi-sports pan-European network with the Eurosport Player subscription product.

Domestically speaking, Sauerhoff sees a changing trend for TV Everywhere, which US viewers don’t see as a sexy must-have anymore. As such, Discovery is exploring other means of getting content online, with Sauerhoff boasting how Discovery experienced around 2.4 to 2.5 billion hours of online viewing during Q1 2020 alone, and growing fast.

Faultline has covered countless virtual events over the past few months, and we have noticed a tendency to lead on the smallest company, normally a start-up or someone relatively unknown on our radar like Symphony MediaAI, while ending with a courtesy mention for the largest beast, in this case Discovery. Perhaps we’re reading into it too much, but there is a certainly an argument that lockdowns have manifested as a catalyst to pushing out the old guard – which we can only interpret as positive for budding content and technology houses.