February 24, 2019
Category archive


Hulu greenlights ‘Howard the Duck’ and three other animated Marvel shows

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Four new animated Marvel series, plus a crossover special, are coming to Hulu.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Hulu has greenlit “MODOK,” “Hit-Monkey,” “Tigra & Dazzler Show” and “Howard the Duck.” The characters will then come together in a special titled “The Offenders.”

These aren’t exactly A-list, or even B-list, Marvel characters. Howard the Duck (created by Steve Gerber) is probably the best-known — mostly for starring in a notorious ’80s flop — but I’ve also got a soft spot for MODOK, a gloriously ridiculous villain whose full name is Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.

Presumably, the strategy here is to make funny shows about some of the weirder Marvel characters. And there are some established names working behind the scenes, with Kevin Smith signed up as a writer and executive producer on “Howard the Duck,” Patton Oswalt serving in a similar role on “MODOK” and Chelsea Handler on “Tigra and Dazzler Show.”

Meanwhile, the Netflix-Marvel partnership — which also started out with four superhero series and a big crossover — appears to be coming to an end, with only “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” left uncanceled (for now).

Hulu is already the home of another Marvel series, “Runaways,” and it makes sense that the relationship would deepen after the Fox acquisition, which made Marvel’s corporate parent Disney into the majority owner of Hulu. And if that’s not enough streaming superhero content for you, there are also shows about Loki and other characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works for the yet-to-launch Disney+.

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Hulu announces a new ad unit that appears when you pause

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Just to get this out of the way: Yes, Hulu is introducing an ad unit that will show up when you pause a video. But no, it won’t be a video ad.

Hulu says it has 25 million subscribers, the majority of them on an ad-supported plan — so they’re used to seeing TV-style commercial breaks before and during their viewing experience. However, Vice President and Head of Advertising Platforms Jeremy Helfand said the company realizes that having a video ad pop up as soon as you hit pause could be bad for both viewers and advertisers.

For the viewer, “It can be jarring — you think you’ve paused the content, but you’re still seeing sight, sound and motion.” As for the advertiser, they don’t want to create a 30-second ad that the viewer doesn’t see because they left for the kitchen or the bathroom, or because the viewer unpauses the show 10 seconds later.

Conversely, Helfand said that in during user testing, Hulu found that viewers accepted the format “if the ad is subtle and relevant.” So the Hulu Pause Ad is more like a translucent banner ad that appears on the right side of the screen. (“It’s like a car billboard on the side of the road.”) This makes for a better viewing experience, since it’s less distracting than video and you can still see your TV show underneath. And Helfand argued that it’s also better for the brand, because it allows them to get their message across in a quick and simple way.

Also, Pause Ads won’t appear until several seconds after you pause. That’s in case you’ve paused to rewind or otherwise adjust the video (which isn’t really an ideal time to show an ad). So if you start fiddling with the controls, the Pause Ad either won’t appear at all, or it will immediately disappear if it’s already on-screen. Similarly, it should disappear as soon as you hit play again.

When asked if this might give advertisers who are sensitive to where their ads appear something else to worry about — say if their banner shows up next to a risqué sex scene or a gory death scene — Helfand noted that Pause Ads won’t be appearing on episodes that have been rated TV-MA, and that Hulu allows advertisers to target or “anti-target” (explicitly avoid) based on genre, and it sounds like these capabilities will be further refined.

Hulu plans to launch the first Pause Ads in the second quarter of this year, and it’s already announcing two advertisers — Coca-Cola and Charmin. Helfand will appear in select on-demand content in the Hulu library.

The unit will probably continue evolving over time — the exact size and placement could change. Also, Hulu is still figuring out the exact pricing model, but Helfand said it’s envisioned as part of a larger package for advertisers.

And while it’s understandable for viewers to be annoyed when they see ads in new palces, Helfand suggested this is part of a broader push towards “non-disruptive formats,” where ads don’t interrupt your viewing experience. In fact, the goal is to make these new formats account for 50 percent of Hulu’s advertising within the next three years.

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Hulu drops the price for its streaming service to $6 per month, but raises prices for Live TV

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While Netflix is raising prices, Hulu is lowering its own. In a move to better compete with streaming rivals – and pick up new customers who think Netflix just got too expensive – Hulu this morning announced it’s lowering the cost of its streaming service by $2.00 per month. Currently, the service is $7.99 monthly. After the price change goes into effect, it will only be $5.99.

Hulu’s changes come shortly after Netflix’s decision to raise the price for its most popular plan in the U.S. to $12.99 per month, up from $10.99. Its one-device plan is also now going up to $8.99 per month, and the four-device plan is $15.99.

Following Netflix’s announcement, various consumer surveys indicated that at least some Netflix customers may consider dropping the streaming service, as a result, or at least downgrade.

But how many people said they would actually ditch Netflix varied widely, depending on which survey you read. Streaming Observer, for example, said that 10 percent of customers were considering downgrading their plan and 65 percent would consider a discounted ad-supported plan, like Hulu. But Hub Entertainment Research said that 16 percent would downgrade, and only 9 percent said they’d leave Netflix.

In any event, if there are customers on the market now looking for a better deal on streaming, Hulu is ready to pick them up.

As another perk, Hulu in the past has seen higher engagement and retention from its $5.99 per month customers (who signed up for Hulu with a promotional discount). This also contributed to Hulu’s decision to make this its new price.

However, the company isn’t adjusting the price of its ad-free streaming service, which remains $11.99 per month, nor is it dropping the price of its Live TV service – in fact, that’s now going up.

To help make up for the fact that Hulu is using its core package as a loss leader, the price for Hulu with Live TV is increasing by $5, going from $39.99 to $44.99 per month. And the ad-free version of Hulu with Live TV is going up $7, from $43.99 to $50.99 per month.

Those new prices are dangerously close to – and in some cases, exactly the same as – the traditional cable TV package cord cutters are aiming to replace.

That could make it more difficult for Hulu to compete with other live TV packages – especially because some have the advantage of being bundled in with wireless service, like AT&T’s DirecTV Now or WatchTV. Meanwhile, others have found ways to keep prices down, like the sports-free bundle from Philo; the cheap $25/mo base package from Sling TV; or the $40/mo YouTube TV service with all your local channels (which also just became available nationwide).

Hulu’s higher pricing, however, indicates the company believes its service is worth the premium because it not only streams live programming from over 60 channels – it additionally includes Hulu’s large on-demand library of over 85,000 TV episodes, and its original content like The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Runaways, Future Man and Castle Rock. 

However, Hulu is bringing down the price of some of its Live TV add-ons to make the package price increase more palatable.

Its Unlimited Screens and Enhanced Cloud DVR will each cost $5 less per month, going from $14.99 to $9.99/mo. And subscribers can buy a bundle with both for $14.98 per month.

Hulu says the new pricing will go into effect on February 26, 2019. Existing users are not being grandfathered in to current pricing, but will rather see the changes reflected on their billing cycle after the 26th.


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Hulu redesign will drop the confusing home screen called ‘Lineup,’ simplify navigation

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Hulu is preparing to update its streaming app in order to make its simpler to navigate to and discover content you want to watch. Some of the changes coming in the weeks ahead are smaller, but worthwhile tweaks – like adding buttons or re-arranging where menus sit. But the more notable change is that Hulu is testing doing away with the app’s existing home page – currently known as “Lineup” – and replacing it with a new experience.

That’s a change that could have a significant impact, as the Hulu home page is the place everyone first lands when they launch the app. The page today sees the most engagement and is biggest driver of content discovery for the streaming service.

Hulu found that users have short attention spans when hitting this page, however – in 30 to 60 seconds’ time, they’ve lost interest. Plus, when users decide to play a piece of content from this landing page, they’re doing so after five actions or less. That means Hulu has only a small window to connect viewers to content they’ll like, before they click away to elsewhere in the app – or close it altogether because they can’t find something to watch.

What Hulu now wants to learn is what sort of content makes the most sense for this landing page. “Lineup,” after all, is a vague term. It sounds like it’s something highly personalized to the viewer – and it’s clearly not, as any Hulu user can tell you, the suggestions here are often hit-or-miss.

“Lineup is confusing,” Hulu’s new VP of Product, Jim Denney, admitted, in a discussion with TechCrunch at CES about the new features. “Lineup, the way it is today, is a combination of editorial picks and recommendations…that combination of things is not as effective as we’d like it to be,” he said.

In its place, Hulu will trial two different variations: a “Hulu Picks” collection, which is curated by staff, and an “Unwatched in My Stuff” option that will show you things you have on your list, but haven’t yet watched.

The former, “Hulu Picks,” would allow the company to have more control over what sort of content suggestions you see first. While the latter option would showcase content you’ve explicitly indicated interest in viewing.

The company says it will test both options with a portion of Hulu’s user base in order to determine which one sees the best response. This will roll out in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, other changes to the Hulu app will be focused on helping you view more content while searching for something to watch, as well as helping you to more easily navigate, and start watching with less confusion and fewer steps.

For example, Hulu will soon have more content appear on the screen as you scroll down in the user interface, so you can scan the thumbnails and make a decision more quickly.

It’s also adding a larger, more prominent “Details” button on content within its various collections – like the Lineup (or whatever replaces it), as well as sections like “Kids,” “News” or “Sports,” for example. This button will take you to the details page for that show or movie you’re interested in.


It’s adding more metadata next to the content, too, including things like the genre, rating, and the year which will help users make a choice more quickly.

On the content’s Details page, there will be a stacked list of quick actions for things like playing the next episodes, adding items to “My Stuff,” or managing your relationship with the show.

This latter option is a small but useful tweak that takes you to an area where you can adjust your suggestions and watch history – meaning you can mark something as watched or unwatched. This will be particularly beneficial for those times when you’ve begun watching a program on another streaming service, and now want to pick it up again on Hulu. Today, Hulu wouldn’t have any way of knowing if you’ve viewed those episodes outside its app – but now you’ll be able to explicitly say so.

You’ll also be able to mark content as unwatched, which could help if you’ve fallen asleep while watching TV, for example, or someone else watched the show while logged into your profile.

New visual templates will make finding news, sports and kids content easier with things like matchup artwork for games and movies identified by their poster, for instance.

On the Live TV side, subscribers will be able to view a full two weeks out on the programming guide, instead of just what’s airing now and next. The navigation here – like Recent Channels, My Channels, All Channels, etc. – has also moved from the top to the left side for easier access.

While these various changes will be rolling out this spring, Hulu plans to continue to iterate on the user interface through the year, says Denney.

“I think you should expect to see the UI continue to evolve,” he said. “We’ll make modifications based on what we’ve learned. We’ll continue to make changes in the UI and make changes to the way we do our recommendations. The mission is to make sure people appreciate the amount of content they have access to without being overwhelming. This home redesign is an ingredient in that,” he added.





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Live streams of karate and niche sports are terrifying major sports leagues

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Of the 100 most-watched live telecasts in the US in 2005, 14 were sporting events; in 2015, sporting events comprised 93 of the top 100 telecasts. That shift occurred because TV shows are shifting to online or on-demand viewing, and live broadcasts of the biggest sports are the main thing TV networks have left to draw in live audiences. But the need to keep those sports on TV and off streaming services is only accelerating the rate at which young people are tuning into other sports leagues instead.

The rapid adoption of subscription video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and of social live streams on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch is enabling massive growth by sports leagues that you won’t normally see on TV. In the streaming era, more sports – and new types of sports like esports – keep thriving while interest in traditional pro leagues like the NFL and MLB declines.

OTT is where the growth is

The central narrative in the global film/TV industry right now is the response of incumbent companies to the growing dominance of Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming (aka “OTT” or over-the-top) services. The incumbents are merging to consolidate ownership of must-have shows onto a smaller number of new OTT services that will each be stronger.

The majority of American households have a Netflix subscription (i.e. access to one of Netflix’s 56M US accounts), another 20M have a Hulu subscription, the number of OTT-only households has tripled in 5 years, and 50% of US internet users use a subscription OTT service at least weekly. Almost one-third (29%) of Americans say they watch more streaming TV than linear TV, and among those age 18-29 it’s 54% (with 29% having cut the cord on linear TV entirely). People, especially young people, want to watch shows on their own time and on any device, and they get more value from a few $8-40 per month subscription platforms than a $100+ per month cable bill.

Meanwhile, social live-streaming platforms that got their start enabling people to either vlog or watch video gaming are expanding to all sorts of live broadcasting: Twitch averaged 1 million viewers at any given point of day in January, and there were 3.5 billion broadcasts over Facebook Live in the first two years after it launched (with 2 billion users viewing at least one).

We’ve hit the pivot point where media is streaming-first. Netflix is now the leading studio in Hollywood, spending $13 billion this year on content. Linear TV viewing is declining: every major cable network (except NBC Sports) has declining viewership and aging viewers. Between 2007 and 2017, the median age of primetime viewers on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox went up 8-11 years and are all in the 50s or 60s.

Major pro sporting events are the last bastion of TV networks because the dominant brands are, for the most part, only available live on TV. Beyond those, the only content getting large audiences to tune in simultaneously are a couple Hollywood awards shows and premieres or finales of a couple hit shows (Big Bang Theory and NCIS).

The exclusive broadcast rights to those live sports events – particularly the NFL, NBA, MLB, and top NCAA basketball and football games – are the last defense for major broadcast networks. They are the reason for younger Americans to not cut the cord. ESPN makes $7.6 billion per year in carriage fees from cable companies paying for the right to carry the main ESPN channel (the other ESPN channels add another $1 billion); that number is increasing even as ESPN’s viewership is declining.

Disney (ESPN’s owner) and other leading broadcasters don’t want to let people watch major sporting events online instead (at least not easily or cheaply) because doing so would pull the rug out from under their traditional revenue stream and OTT revenue (subscription + ads) won’t make up for it quickly enough. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that TV networks are paying record sums for exclusive broadcast rights to top sports leagues out of fear that losing them to a rival could be a nail in their coffin.

This strategy is delaying, not stopping the shift in consumption habits. More and more young people are tuning out (or never tuning in) to the major pro sports on TV, and the median age of their audiences shows that: 64 for the PGA Tour, 58 for NASCAR, 57 for MLB, 52 for NCAA football and men’s basketball, and 50 for the NFL…and all are getting older. (Cable news networks, the other holdouts who are still doing well on live TV face the same situation: the average age of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN viewers is now 65, 65, and 61 respectively.)

The major pro sports staying on linear TV has expanded the market opening for new sports to fill the open space with young people who mainly consume content online. In fact, a growing marketplace of different sports leagues (including esports) developing their own fanbases is an inevitability of the shift to OTT video as it lowers the barrier to entry to near-zero and let’s geographically dispersed fans unify in one place.

1. Lower barrier to entry for distribution

Lawn bowling is no longer your grandfather’s sports league. Mint Images/Getty Images

Niche sports leagues – or frankly, even big sports leagues that just aren’t at the scale of professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey – have always had a hard time getting coverage on television. But you can produce and distribute video for an online audience more cheaply than for a television audience.

In fact with Facebook Live and Twitch, you can stream live video for free, and you can share clips across every social channel to attract interest. To launch your own OTT service or partner with an existing one, you don’t need to start with a massive audience from the beginning and you don’t need millions of dollars from sponsors just to break even.

Having signed over 150 new deals this year alone for its 20+ sports verticals (which will stream 2,500 live events in 2018), Austin-based FloSports has established itself as the go-to OTT partner for sports leagues with an established, passionate following that aren’t massive enough to garner regular ESPN-level coverage.

From rugby, track & field, and wrestling to bowling, competitive marching band, and ballroom dance, millions of Americans have participated in these activities in their youth and through clubs as adults but rarely see them on television. In fact, the rare instances when such sports are on TV – like their national championships – the league is usually paying large sums (potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars) for that airtime rather than getting paid by the broadcasters.

FloSports gives a home to the superfans of its partner leagues, with full coverage of the sport and commentary meant for real fans. It produces events in the manner best fit to highlight the action and turns superfans – who generally pay a subscription – into evangelists who recruit friends. There are numerous sports that have millions of participants yet no active, high-quality event coverage; those are underserved markets.

By tapping into this, FloSports properties (like FloWrestling, FloTrack, etc.) have gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers and created a surge of interest in teams like Oklahoma State’s wrestling team, which saw an 144% increase in live stream viewing and 68% growth in event attendance after joining FloWrestling (leading to them to set an all-time attendance record in the university’s basketball arena of 14,059 people). In the first half of 2018, FloSports’ various Instagram accounts collectively received 307M video views, more than the collective accounts of Fox Sports or of all NFL teams (and NFL Network).

2. Going global right away.

Johanne Defay of France at a World Surf League event. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The top pro sports leagues have geographically concentrated fan-bases that fit the geographic restrictions of TV broadcasters, which end at a country’s border. Online streaming empowers sports that have large fan bases who aren’t geographically concentrated to aggregate in the digital sphere with enough eyeballs (and paying subscriptions) to drive engagement with the sport’s content through the roof.

Since being acquired in 2015 and renamed World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing has developed a large global following – with 6.5M Facebook fans and 2.9M Instagram followers – through the launch of live streams and on-demand video on its website and mobile app, plus partnering with third-parties like Bleacher Report’s OTT service B/R Live. Only 20-25% of WSL’s viewers are in the US but since its competitions are streamed direct-to-consumer online, they were able to reach surfers around the world right away. After seeing WSL’s Facebook Live streams garner over 14M viewers in 2017, Facebook paid up to become the exclusive live-stream provider for WSL competitions for two years, beginning this past March.

3. Immediate data on audience engagement.

As with all offline-to-online shifts, OTT video streaming captures dramatically more data on audience demographics and engagement than television does, and it does it in real-time. This makes it easier for emerging sports leagues to partner with advertisers and show immediate ROI on their sponsorships, plus it informs their understanding of how to produce their particular type of sporting event for maximum audience engagement.

Karate Combat is a year-old league that builds off the existing base of karate participants and fans around the world (numbering in the tens of millions) with a new competition format specifically intended for OTT. The league allows full-contact fighting and sets the match in a pit (rather than a traditional fighting ring) for better camera angles. It also replaces the traditional focus on having a big in-person audience (which is expensive) and instead sets the fights in exotic locations (like the fight this coming Thursday night on top of the World Trade Center).

Like many emerging sports leagues, Karate Combat is vertically integrated: the league organizing the competitions is also the one producing and streaming the event coverage over its website, mobile apps, and social channels. This not only means it captures the content-related revenue from subscribers, advertisers, and numerous OTT distribution partners, but it sees every data point about fans’ viewing behavior and their interaction with various dashboards (like biometrics on each fighter) so they can optimize both online and offline aspects of the production.

4. Online means interactive

Jujitsu fighting is now an OTT service. South_agency/Getty Images

Online viewing creates the opportunity for functionality you can’t achieve with linear TV: interactive displays overlayed on or next to live video. Viewers can pull up and click through real-time stats, change camera views, or switch overlays (think the the yellow first-down line in NFL broadcasts or coloring around a hockey puck to help you track it on the ice). Ultimately, a more interactive experience means a more social and more entertaining experience (and the sort of deep engagement advertisers value too).

FloSports’ ju-jitsu live streams (FloGrappling) give subscribers multiple live cameras each covering simultaneous matches on different mats so they can click between them. This is a more personalized experience than passively watching one broadcast on TV and it gets that subscriber actively engaged, with their behavior providing valuable data points for FloSports and their deeper interaction likely more compelling to event sponsors.

The display might also highlight live comments from friends or friends-of-friends in order to draw viewers into a more social experience. Discussion of a specific live stream with others watching it has been a central feature for Twitch and Facebook Live and enables the league or team streaming the event to directly engage with fans around the world.

An exception to the OTT-first strategy may be in sports that are entirely new and have zero existing base of participants or fans. Karate, surfing, and video-gaming all have millions of passionate participants around the world, going back decades. A new league like the 3-year-old Drone Racing League (DRL), which has raised $21M in venture capital to develop the sport of competitive drone racing, has to artificially stimulate the development of a fanbase if it doesn’t want to wait years for grassroots competitions to create a critical mass of fans even for a niche OTT service. It’s unsurprising then that DRL has focused on striking TV deals with ESPN, Sky Sports, ProSiebenSat.1, and others to thrust it in front of large audiences from the start, like a new game show hoping its format will entice enough people to take interest.

Power is in the hands of the league owners

Ari Emanuel, chief executive officer of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The best position to be in right now is the owner of a sports league that’s rapidly growing in popularity. The competition for audience by both traditional media companies and tech platforms leaves a long list of distribution partners eager for must-have, exclusive content – especially content like sports events that fans want to want live together – and willing to pay up.

Moreover, vertical integration to control your fans’ content viewing experience and own your relationship with them has never been easier. There are direct subscriptions, advertisers, event sponsors, event tickets, a portfolio of possible OTT distribution deals, and merchandising. The potential revenue streams a league can develop are only more numerous when you add in launching a fantasy sports league – like World Surf League has done – and the recent nationwide legalization of sports betting in the US.

Endeavor, the parent company of Hollywood’s powerful WME-IMG talent agency, seems to have recognized this and is an early mover in the space. It bought two sports leagues that have relied on TV deals and event attendance revenue – UFC for $4B and the smaller but rapidly growing Professional Bull Riders for $100M – and, since they each own their content, launched direct-to-consumer subscription platforms (UFC Fight Pass and PBR Ridepass) for super-fans and cord-cutters. (Endeavor also paid $250M to acquire Neulion, the technology company whose infrastructure powers the OTT services of the UFC, PBR, World Surf League, and dozens of others.)

There’s opportunity for new streaming platforms focused on being the media partner for these emerging sports leagues. Inevitably, the opportunity for bundling will consolidate many of the niche subscriptions onto a small number of leading sports OTT platforms, and that’s a powerful market position for those platforms.

What is unclear is if they can defend themselves as the incumbent media and tech companies come around to this phenomenon and commit billions toward capturing the market. The leading sports broadcasting companies all have OTT offerings and want to make them as compelling to potential subscribers as possible even if they exclude content from the biggest pro sports. A larger company that can afford to spend huge sums on exclusive sports streaming rights (like Disney with ESPN/ABC, Comcast with NBC/Sky Sports, CBS with CBS Sports Network, or Discovery with Eurosport) might opt to buy a company like FloSports as part of their deep dive into the space or they might just aim to outbid them when a league’s contract comes up for renewal.

The hope for an independent OTT platform devoted to emerging sports leagues is they get big enough, fast enough that they can afford to keep winning the rights to emerging leagues as those leagues grow and offers from competitors bid prices up. These dedicated OTT services will likely have to secure long-term – think ten years – streaming rights deals or acquire control of some popular new sports leagues outright to hold their own.

Like online distribution triggered an explosion of digital publishing brands and social influencers for every imaginable niche, the rise of high-quality live streaming and subscription OTT services will allow a lot more sports leagues to build an audience and revenue base substantial enough to thrive. There’s more variety for consumers and resources than ever for those with a rapidly growing league to attract fans worldwide.

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