Recent projects by Simplestream, the media workflow specialist that enables live, catch-up and VOD streaming services through a range of cloud, media management and app/UX development capabilities, provide a window into the new world of TV distribution. The company is helping mid-tier ‘terrestrial’ channel owners create a presence in the catch-up market on set-top boxes for the first time – leading what is likely to become a trend that will take ‘player’ services beyond the current elite of Tier One broadcasters. Separately, the company is helping a content producer that started life as a YouTube channel to become a direct-to-consumer app destination – demonstrating a new pathway to success for media owners that can carve out a niche following for their content.
Simplestream is working with content owners to create narrow-focus thematic streaming services – fulfilling predictions by some analysts that we will see more specialisation alongside the generalist giants like Netflix and Amazon. And the London-based company is about to help channel owners in Europe switch to a U.S. style version of TV Everywhere, where it is the channel owner that controls the authentication gateway and Pay TV subscribers use their Pay TV ID to access the multiscreen service (bundled free with their classic Pay TV subscription). This is a subtle but important change to the current model (as seen in the UK, for example), which leaves the Pay TV operator in charge of authentication and log-ins and then gives the subscriber access to a raft of channel owner streaming offers once beyond the sign-in gateway.
Some leading free-to-air channels (both ad-free and commercial broadcasters) have already introduced log-ins to their player services and are taking details about customers (age/gender/postcode, for example) to help personalise the service or (where ad-funded) to improve their data-driven advertising prospects. Meanwhile some subscription channels are carving out a direct-to-consumer future, generally as a complement to TV Everywhere distribution. Channel owners see an opportunity to achieve a level of independence online that may not be possible in ‘traditional’ multichannel Pay TV. Taking control of their authentication would be a natural step for companies that want more control of their own destiny.
Dan Finch, Chief Commercial Officer at Simplestream (and co-founder at TVPlayer, the consumer streaming service operated by the company, which aggregates a swathe of popular channels in what is effectively a streaming bouquet) says his company would provide the authentication application to the channel owners. He expects Simplestream to start helping channels with this process and predicts a trend towards the U.S. TV Everywhere authentication model.
Focusing on the market for catch-up services on set-top boxes, Finch believes that all mid-tier channel owners (like those populating the 2-3 pages below the public service broadcasters in a typical free-to-air programme guide) will want a catch-up service of their own. They need to go down this route to ensure they capture those viewers who are watching less linear TV and more on-demand.
Until now, STB catch-up has been cost-prohibitive for most channels once you add up the cost of technical deployment and the fees that the STB platform operator (like a free-to-air platform) charges to host the service. “Platform owners have become more flexible on their pricing,” Finch notes, pointing to one reason for what is likely to be a rush to develop services. (The platforms themselves can see the benefits of getting more channels onboard with catch-up services, as it helps them to become the go-to aggregator if they have more on-demand options under their roof).
The STB-based catch-up offers are part of what Simplestream calls a hybrid TV service, where broadcasters have a classic linear channel and complement this with catch-up content that can be accessed via a backwards-facing programme guide on the STB or through an application that opens up the catch-up catalogue (typically found in the on-demand section of the platform operator user interface).
One of Simplestream’s strengths is its live-to-VOD capabilities, which helps channel owners turn their linear broadcast stream into catch-up assets quickly (and the sooner the better for commercial broadcasters especially, who can count catch-up views towards their total audience measurement for seven days after initial broadcast). “We think we can offer a compelling case for broadcast alongside live-to-VOD, media management, metadata integration and apps build,” Finch declares.
In the UK, few channel owners boast their own catch-up service beyond the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. UKTV is a notable exception with its UKTV Play, hosting content from the Dave, Really, Yesterday and Drama channel stable. Another exception is POP Fun, the catch-up offer that hosts content from three kids channels owned by Sony Pictures Television Networks – namely Tiny Pop, POP and KIX. This service was launched in January 2017 and Simplestream powers it on YouView, EE TV and Freesat set-top boxes and via the YouView service on Sony BRAVIA Android television sets, using its Cloud TV Platform.
The Simplestream Cloud TV platform encompasses the end-to-end video workflow needed for live streaming, automated catch-up and cross-platform VOD and includes metadata submission. It can also be used to manage services on Freeview Plus and any hybrid broadcast broadband platform based on the HbbTV standard. The solution also includes white-label HTML-5 applications. POP Fun was the first catch-up service of this kind (integrated with linear TV on a set-top box platform) that Simplestream has worked on, but more are on their way, imminently.
Finch reveals that his company has just signed deals with two channel owners to create a three-channel catch-up service and a one-channel catch-up service in this hybrid broadcast broadband marketplace. Simplestream expects to be managing 10-15 channels for HBB catch-up services by the end of this year, confirming a sharp acceleration in deployments for the mid-tier channel market, in the UK at least.
POP Fun illustrates the market opportunity. As Finch pointed out when the service launched last year, “Kids are spending more time every week watching their favourite programming, so it is paramount that catch-up services are in place to cater to their hunger for their favourite programming anytime, anywhere and on any device.”
A forthcoming announcement will provide yet another example of how the market for TV distribution is changing. An online service called HistoryHit, fronted by the television presenter Dan Snow, is evolving beyond text stories and podcasts into ‘television’. The beta website flags their new television service called HistoryHit.tv, which is a thematic streaming service focused on history and therefore a good example of how the streaming market is creating more specialised services.
The HistoryHit video service aims to aggregate high-quality history-focused programming from different content producers and broadcasters mixed with its own ‘originals’. The beta website promises ‘a new kind of global history channel bringing you history documentaries and original seasons’.
Simplestream is helping to create the HistoryHit service using its white-label content and service management and app/UX offering. The service will be available initially on desktop, mobile and tablet and then expanded to Amazon Fire and Apple TV devices within months of launch. HistoryHit will launch as a freemium service.
Simplestream refers to its white-label streaming solution as ‘VOD-in-a-box’ (even though it covers live streaming, too) and a key benefit is agility, starting with the ability to take services to market in as little as six weeks. “It provides companies with the ability to quickly, easily and cost-effectively test the market using existing video content, with low exposure to commercial risk and flexible commercial terms,” the company says of the solution. Various monetisation options are possible: subscription, ad-funded, pay-per-view and other transactional (TVOD) models.
Finch says content owners benefit from using a shared white-label platform, avoiding the need to pursue their own technology and feature roadmaps. “You do not have to worry about paying for change requests,” he points out. One important update to the white-label solution is download-to-view, which will be added in the next three months. “We are helping content owners to get off the ground and grow cost-effectively with this model,” he adds. “There is still lots of flexibility around customisation if you want it.”
Other ‘VOD-in-a-box’ customers include Marquee, the arts (dance, opera, theatre, music) SVOD service, Trace Play (SVOD) and Blaze (AVOD). Finch predicts more content owners will develop ‘skinny’ thematic streaming services – an assertion that chimes with what at least one leading analyst firm, Ampere Analysis, has been saying for some time.
Another new Simplestream customer, announced two weeks ago and also using the VOD-in-a-box white label solution, illustrates how the road to media success is increasingly broad. Little Dot Studios, a BAFTA and Emmy award-winning digital content producer, has been distributing programming across social TV platforms, with its ‘Real Stories’ YouTube channel being a good example, with 1.3 million subscribers. This is home to 300 documentary and factual titles. Now the company is creating a Real Stories VOD service that will be subscription-based in some territories and ad-funded in others.
The VOD service (SVOD or AVOD) is a chance for Little Dot Studios to monetize its content more fully. Real Stories is available on iOS and Android mobile/tablet and desktop and will come to Roku, Amazon Fire and Apple TV later this year. The app has been developed in a such a way that it could be integrated into platform operator set-top boxes too, providing another route to market.
This deployment demonstrates how a focused streaming offer can use social media video outlets to build an audience and then ‘break out’ into the wider market with its own direct-to-consumer app offering. It is yet another illustration that today, if your content is good enough, you can grow services in a way that was simply never possible before. Before streaming, you had to take the much larger risk of launching a broadcast channel, which of course limited channels to content that would attract a fairly broad audience, leading in turn to broader editorial remits.
Digital distribution has opened the way to increasing specialisation. It has also created an evolutionary lake teeming with new life, some of which will grow legs and march onto land!
Photo: The new HistoryHit multiscreen service