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May 24, 2019
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Winter is coming for HBO NOW subscriber growth

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Fan reaction to Game of Thrones‘ final season may be mixed, but the show has been undeniably good for HBO’s network — and for its over-the-top streaming service, HBO NOW. The Season 8 premiere drew in 11.8 million live viewers and 17.4 million viewers across all platforms on the day of airing, as well as a record number of sign-ups to HBO NOW, which in March was reported to have 8 million subscribers. But the show’s finale airs this Sunday, and HBO is set to see a huge exodus of streaming subscribers, as result.

According to new research from Mintel released this week, HBO NOW users are twice as likely as those from any other streaming service to cancel their subscription when a specific show ends.

The only service that performed worse on this front was YouTube Premium. And that’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, given that its subscriber base also includes YouTube viewers who want to go ad-free —  not just those who are there for its original content.

The new findings are telling in terms of how heavily HBO has been relying on Game of Thrones to grow its streaming platform over the years. In addition, the metrics indicate potential struggles ahead for HBO parent company WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service. Due to launch into beta later this year, the service will be led by HBO content. But without new episodes of Game of Thrones, it will have to rely on other popular shows, like Westworld, to pull in viewers.

However, even though Westworld is HBO’s second most-watched show, Game of Thrones has triple the number of viewers.  

The network is clearly aware of the negative impacts to its streaming platform the end of Thrones will bring. It already greenlit plans for a Game of Thrones prequel, which is now filming. And it has other spinoffs in the works, too.

The prequel may not attract the same fervor as the original, but it could help bring viewers back. In the meantime, however, HBO NOW is set to see a significant number of subscribers cancelling after Sunday night.

Mintel also found that HBO NOW doesn’t have any significant traction beyond consumers who already subscribe to four or more over-the-top streaming services. These users pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu, then threw HBO into the mix in order to gain access to Game of Thrones. They’re not necessarily loyal to the network itself or interested in its other programming. And at $14.99 per month, HBO NOW is a fairly expensive addition.

With new steaming services from Apple and Disney poised to launch in the months ahead, a number of consumers will likely shift their HBO NOW dollars over to the newcomers instead, or simply pocket their savings.

The researchers also believe that smaller, lesser known streaming services could benefit by positioning their offerings as a more affordable alternative to HBO NOW.

This is especially true because the study found that consumers’ ideal price point for a “perfect” streaming package — one that had everything they want to watch — would be around $20 per month. Today, that number affords them to purchase maybe two or, at the most, three services. A fourth service, like HBO NOW, has been more of a luxury expense — a must-have while Game of Thrones aired, perhaps, but not one consumers will feel comfortable paying for when the show ends.

The new report stops short of making a firm prediction on the number of cancellations HBO NOW will soon see, though.

“I’m hesitant to put a direct number on subscriptions or cancellations,” says Mintel analyst analyst Buddy Lo. “We know from the research that nearly 20 percent of HBO NOW consumers say they would cancel service over a specific program, but we didn’t definitively ask if it was specifically Game of Thrones that they will cancel over,” he tells TechCrunch.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine what other program HBO NOW subscribers would have had in mind when responding.

Mintel isn’t the only firm to dive into the potential impacts to HBO NOW subscriber growth resulting from the end of its flagship series. Last month, Second Measure pointed to historical trends that help to forecast the big subscriber drop ahead.

For example, HBO NOW subscribers jumped by 91 percent in the U.S. during Season 7’s airing, but steadily declined over the six months after it ended. Only 26 percent of HBO NOW subscribers who made their first payment during Game of Thrones season 7 were still subscribers six months later, the report said.

It also found that HBO NOW subscribers were far less loyal than those on other streaming services including, in order, Netflix, Hulu, and even CBS All Access — the latter thanks to the Star Trek: Discovery fan base.

And neither HBO NOW nor CBS All Access came anywhere close to the retention numbers for Netflix and Hulu, which have 6-month retention figures of 74 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Second Measure also found Netflix and Hulu had far more exclusivity than rivals — meaning, a larger share of subscribers who only paid for their service and no others.

For Netflix, this figure was 78 percent. HBO NOW, by comparison, only had a 27 percent share of subscribers who were exclusive to its platform.

The firm predicts loyalty to a single service will continue to decline in the years ahead as consumer demand for streaming content grows.

The increased competition will make it even harder for HBO to fare well on its own. That’s why it makes sense WarnerMedia is tapping into its other properties to instead create an HBO-led “bundle” that feels more compelling than HBO alone.

Spotify’s leanback instant listening app Stations hits iOS

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Spotify has launched its instant listening app Stations on iOS, but only in Australia for the time being. The release comes nearly a year and a half after the Stations app first arrived on the market, initially for Android users in Australia. Dubbed an “experiment,” the app allows users to jump right into streaming instead of having to curate their own playlists or stations, or save favorite music to their library.

Unlike Spotify’s flagship application, the Stations app presents users with a minimalist interface where available playlists are displayed with an oversized font. You can scroll up and down between the playlists to select one, instead of typing in a search box or searching through voice commands.

When launching Stations, music begins playing automatically — a feature that had some calling it a “Pandora copycat” at the time of launch, given that instant music playback is something that Spotify’s rival Pandora already supports.

Stations was largely designed for those who want a more radio-like experience that involves less manual input. Free users will hear ads, be able to thumbs up and down songs, but can’t skip tracks. Premium users who download Stations get unlimited skips and ad-free listening.

The Stations app today features a range of playlists by genre, decade, activity and more, but also becomes personalized to the end-user over time. You can also opt to create your own stations by selecting from favorite artists in an experience that’s reminiscent of the customization offered today by YouTube Music — right down to the rounded artist profile photos you tap on.

As you listen to music on Stations, you can thumbs up and down songs in order to have it create custom stations personalized to you — including a Discover Weekly playlist, Release Radar and a Favorites playlist.

Not much had been heard about Stations since its January 2018 debut. And its limited release — it never hit the U.S., for example — could have indicated it was an experiment that didn’t quite pan out.

But it now seems that’s not the case, given the new expansion to iOS.

By offering the app to more users, Spotify has the chance to learn and collect data from a larger and more representative group of people. Whether or not it takes any ideas from Stations to its main app remains to be seen.

The company declined to comment on its plans, when asked.

“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson said. “Some of those tests end up paving the path for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We aren’t going to comment on specific tests at this time,” they added.

Stations is live now on iOS in Australia. More information on the app is on the (newly updated) Help site here.

Hulu tops 28 million customers, unveils new shows and a ‘binge watch’ ad experience

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Hulu has now grown over 28 million U.S. customers, including 26.8 million monthly paid subscribers and 1.3 million promotional accounts, the company announced this morning as part of its annual presentation at the digital Newfronts in New York. In January, Hulu had 25 million total users, including both paid and promo accounts, and 20 million this time last year. The streaming service also today unveiled its new slate of shows and original programming, alongside other content deals and a new “binge advertising experience” that’s designed to be less intrusive.

On the content front, Hulu announced an expanded partnership with Marvel to bring two new live-action series to its service in 2020.

Though Marvel owner Disney is preparing to launch its own direct-to-consumer streaming service later this year, Disney’s majority ownership of Hulu is proving to be an advantage as it can shift some of the more adult-oriented Marvel properties to Hulu, instead of the more family-focused Disney+ streaming service.

That seems to be the case for the new Marvel series Marvel’s Ghost Rider, aka Robbie Reyes, who’s described as a “quintessential antihero, consumed by hellfire and supernaturally bound to a demon.” The other, Marvel’s Helstrom, features Daimon and Ana Helstrom, the son and daughter of a powerful serial killer, who tracks down the worst of humanity.

Ghost Rider is exec-produced by Ingrid Escajeda, who will serve as showrunner, along with Paul Zbyszewski and Marvel’s Jeph Loeb. Helstrom is exec-produced by Loeb and Zbyszewski, who will also serve as showrunner. 

The two new series join existing Marvel properties on Hulu, including Marvel’s Runaways, and other more adult-oriented fare like Marvel’s M.O.D.O.KMarvel’s Hit-MonkeyMarvel’s Tigra & Dazzler Show, Marvel’s Howard The Duck, and the planned special event, Marvel’s The Offenders.

Hulu also today announced a new multi-year, multi-show partnership with Vox Media Studio, (Momofuku founder) David Chang’s Majordomo Media, and Chrissy Teigen’s Suit & Thai Productions, to develop premium food-centric programming. One of the first shows will feature Chang and Teigen and will focus on family cooking; another documentary series will tap into Vox’s Eater, and its knowledge of the best restaurants in the world.

Tiegen also scored her own two-year deal with Hulu to create original programming that could range from scripted content to original talk shows. (In other words, what Oprah is to Apple TV+, Tiegen is to Hulu, in terms of having free reign.)

Meanwhile, with the newly greenlit series Nine Perfect Strangers, Hulu hopes to have a hit like HBO did with Big Little Lies, as the series adapts another of author Liane Moriarty’s novels for the screen.

Also like Big Little Lies, David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman are again involved, the former as co-showrunner and co-writer along with John Henry Butterworth, and the latter starring in a lead role as the director of a boutique health-and-wellness resort promising healing and transformation to the aforementioned nine strangers. Kidman’s production company, Blossom Films, which exec-produced the first season of Big Little Lies, is also involved along with Made Up Stories and Endeavor Content.

As previously reported, Hulu is running its own take on the Theranos scandal, with The Dropout, starring Kate McKinnon as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. And it’s renewing two freshman comedies, Pen15 and Ramy for second seasons.

Hulu’s Newfronts are really about the advertisers, of course. And this year, Hulu is pitching them a way to better target and cater to binge watchers — the viewers who are tuning in to watch for long stretches at a time. This “binge ad experience” is the second non-intrusive format Hulu has developed — the first being the “pause ad” that only appears when you press pause. These will roll out to more advertisers in August.

Binge ads will instead allow advertisers to target just binge watchers with creatives that are “situationally relevant” to their viewing behavior. Hulu says it will have more to share about binge ads later this year, but we’re hearing that the idea is that the brand’s ad has to be somehow tailored to the viewing experience — for example, an opportunity to watch the next episode commercial-free or a personalized offer.

The ad format will roll out in Q4, then open to all advertisers in 2020.

“This is a monumental time for Hulu’s advertising business and for brands who are looking to reach the most valuable audience in television,” said Peter Naylor, SVP and Head of Advertising Sales at Hulu, in a statement released alongside today’s event. “Because of our viewer-first advertising principles, we’re scaling rapidly. We’re offering advertisers the most sophisticated targeting, the largest addressable footprint in on-demand television, robust measurement solutions, and new ad models,” he added. “Hulu is future-proofing TV advertising and transforming the way brands connect with consumers.”

Hulu’s efforts in trying to figure out how to balance advertising with a quality TV experience, where viewers aren’t continually interrupted by repetitive ads, could be an advantage. Its focus on the user experience could help it better compete amid a growing range of free, ad-supported streaming services — a market that today includes the likes of Roku, Amazon (IMDb), Sinclair, Viacom (Pluto TV), Tubi, Google (YouTube), Walmart (Vudu), and others.

And it could give it a head’s start on competing with Netflix, if and when Netflix decides to run ads at some point in the future — a topic that was discussed earlier this week at the NewFronts, when an ad exec hinted that Netflix’s recruiters were already working towards a future that included advertising.

The company also shared some metrics related to its viewers and behavior today.

It noted that 80 percent of viewing takes place in the living room, and that half of its Live TV customers watch on-demand programming. 65 percent who watch a live sporting event also watch something on demand right after.

“In today’s direct-to-consumer world, viewers are demanding better when it comes to TV — from the user experience to their content choices to the advertising,” said Hulu CEO Randy Freer, in a statement. “Hulu’s continued growth, as well as the shows and initiatives announced today, reflect our deep investment in product, programming, brand, customer experience and business strategy to ensure that with Hulu, consumers can connect with the stories they love, at the right time and price, on any device,” he said.

Netflix says it’s testing a shuffle feature for when you don’t know what to watch

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Netflix is testing a new feature that can help you start streaming when you don’t know what to watch. The company confirmed it’s testing a shuffle mode of sorts, which will allow you to easily click on a popular show to start playing a random episode. The idea with the feature is to offer an experience that’s more like traditional TV — where you could just turn the set on, and there would be something to watch.

With today’s streaming services, that sort of seamless experience is more difficult to achieve. Instead, viewers now have to first select a streaming app, then scroll through endless menus and recommendations before they can settle on their next title.

The new shuffle feature, instead, offers something closer to the experience of turning on cable TV, when there was always some classic favorite show playing in syndication.

The shows being tested with the new feature appear to be those that people choose when they don’t know what else to watch, like “The Office,” “New Girl,” “Our Planet,” “Arrested Development” and others.

“The Office,” in particular, has a reputation for being a go-to pick for when you’re not in the middle of some other binge fest.

The TV shows appear in a new row, titled “Play a Random Episode.” To get started, you’d click any TV show’s thumbnail, and a random episode from the series then starts playing.

The thumbnails themselves are also adorned with a red “shuffle” icon to indicate they’ll play a random episode.

(Above: Seems someone had the right idea)

The new feature was first spotted by the folks at Android Police, who saw the option appear in the Android version of Netflix’s app.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the shuffle feature is something it’s considering, but hasn’t yet committed to rolling out.

“We are testing the ability for members to play a random episode from different TV series on the Android mobile app. These tests typically vary in length of time and by region, and may not become permanent,” a Netflix spokesperson said.

Netflix for some time has been focused on ways to get users streaming its content faster, after they log in. That’s where its decision to run autoplaying trailers comes in, for example, or why it now features those Stories-inspired previews, or why it tested promoting its shows right on the login screen.

Image credit: Android Police

Prince Harry is partnering with Oprah Winfrey on Apple TV+ series about mental health

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Prince Harry is the latest big name attached to Apple’s upcoming streaming service, Apple TV+, which was formally introduced last month. According to an announcement published to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s official Instagram account, Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey are co-creators and executive producers on an Apple TV+ docuseries focused on mental health.

“I truly believe that good mental health – mental fitness – is the key to powerful leadership, productive communities and a purpose-driven self,” said Prince Harry, in a statement.

“It is a huge responsibility to get this right as we bring you the facts, the science and the awareness of a subject that is so relevant during these times. Our hope is that this series will be positive, enlightening and inclusive – sharing global stories of unparalleled human spirit fighting back from the darkest places, and the opportunity for us to understand ourselves and those around us better. I am incredibly proud to be working alongside Oprah on this vital series,” he shared.

Oprah’s involvement with Apple TV+ was first announced in June 2018, with news that she signed a multi-year deal to produce original content for Apple’s then still unnamed streaming service.

At Apple’s press event in March, the company brought Winfrey on stage to offer more details about what she had planned. That includes “Toxic Labor,” a documentary that examines the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace, and another untitled multi-part series about mental health.

Prince Harry’s involvement was not mentioned at the time.

However, he has been involved for several months, today’s announcement states.

The series, according to Winfrey, will look at how “the scourge of depression, and anxiety, post-traumatic stress, addiction, trauma, and loss, is just devastating lives daily across the globe.” The show, if it does its job right, aims to replace shame and stigma around mental health issues with “compassion and honesty,” she had said.

The topic of mental health is one Prince Harry has been focused on himself, before agreeing to co-produce the series.

As the announcement explains:

“The dynamic multi-part documentary series will focus on both mental illness and mental wellness, inspiring viewers to have an honest conversation about the challenges each of us faces, and how to equip ourselves with the tools to not simply survive, but to thrive.

This commitment builds on The Duke of Sussex’s long-standing work on issues and initiatives regarding mental health, where he has candidly shared personal experience and advocated for those who silently suffer, empowering them to get the help and support they deserve.”

Winfrey also went on “CBS This Morning” to talk more about mental health, the series, and how she came to partner with Prince Harry on the project.

She had asked him what he thought were the most important issues facing the world, and he had replied with two: climate change and mental health.

“As you know, he’s spoken about his own issues and what he went through after his mother died and how being able to talk about it has benefitted him,” Winfrey told CBS. “It’s a passion of his and at the end of the conversation, I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be doing this thing with Apple. I said it’s a big concern of mine, too … And I was telling him about this Apple platform and he said at the end of the conversation, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help.’ And I go ‘as a matter of fact…”

The multi-part docuseries still doesn’t have a name, but will arrive in 2020 following the public debut of Apple TV+, scheduled for later this fall. 

 

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