People/Biz

Cut through the clutter: How non-fiction is giving emerging streamers an edge

As the streaming business booms with increasingly more names entering the fray, the industry’s growth reminds Documentary+ co-founder Justin Lacob of the mid-2000s, when it seemed like conglomerates were launching cable networks ...
April 13, 2022

As the streaming business booms with increasingly more names entering the fray, the industry’s growth reminds Documentary+ co-founder Justin Lacob of the mid-2000s, when it seemed like conglomerates were launching cable networks almost weekly.

The difference today, Lacob says, is that modern technology makes the barrier to entry a lot lower.

“The quality [of the offering] and the speed can be a lot higher, because the access to technology allows us to turn these things on very quickly, [and to] do deals and get the content up quickly for consumers to watch,” Lacob says.

It’s a very crowded marketplace, though. Major names are still entering the field with new platforms, such as Paramount+, which launched in March 2021, and CNN+, which debuted this spring. Meanwhile, giants such as Netflix and Amazon still take up a large share of the market.

Amid the fierce competition, it can be difficult for newer SVOD and AVOD services to break through. But what’s worked for Documentary+ that can be applied to other platforms, Lacob says, is finding a niche and expanding out as needed.

QUALITY COUNTS

Documentary+, a joint AVOD venture between non-fiction studio XTR and late entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, launched in 2021 with a focus on premium documentary films and series. The platform’s niche is docs with a strong directorial point of view.

Charlie Sextro, Documentary+’s editor-in-chief, says not overwhelming the platform with content is key. Instead, his team ensures that there’s a high bar of quality to their selections, which will entice distributors who know their content will be surrounded by a carefully curated library of strong titles.

“In the AVOD space, we need to be something reliable and available to the audience, and consistent in that,” Sextro says.

MagellanTV, meanwhile, has differentiated itself from volume suppliers like Netflix by focusing on specific nonfiction genres such as science, history, wildlife and, more recently, true crime.

“There is such an ocean of content out there for the consumer that you have to find a way to communicate some unique quality about yourself,” MagellanTV co-founder Greg Diefenbach says.

“[There's] making sure the identity of the product connects with what your particular audience is interested in. Beyond that, there’s [the] pressure of, how do you get in front of that audience?”

ADAPTABILITY & ACCESSIBILITY

The original conception of a platform’s identity can change too. Diefenbach says there’s a push and pull, as the product is driven by a team’s passion when it launches and is crafted to reflect their interests. But after launch, he says, platforms must be attuned to what the audience is looking for and adjust accordingly.

This can mean opening up to new areas. Sextro says that Documentary+ is currently working on late-night, non-fiction content for its audience, after its team noticed how many viewers were watching the service in the middle of the night.

Apart from content, emerging streaming platforms also have to be very concerned with access and availability. MagellanTV and Documentary+ have both tried to increase their footprints via a wide variety of platforms, including web and mobile apps, FAST channels, Roku, Samsung TV, Vizio and more.

There is such an ocean of content out there for the consumer that you have to find a way to communicate some unique quality about yourself.

Ecoflix is available on several of these platforms too, but this new service otherwise goes against the streaming grain in its mission. The streamer, which was created in partnership with NGOs and focuses on environmental and wildlife titles, operates as a nonprofit, with part of the funds from its subscriptions put towards the ecological campaigns it supports.

David Casselman, who spearheaded the platform’s launch last year, says the nonprofit model is one that few other streaming platforms are likely to pursue. But Ecoflix still faces a hurdle that is common to many other streamers: Casselman points out that most consumers will look to major platforms like Netflix or Disney+ first, followed by niche streamers from better known companies. So if you’re a specialty channel, he says, at best you’re likely fighting to be the fourth or fifth platform individual consumers will watch.

“If you’re going to rely on subscription dollars, that might be a bad notion. It’s just very difficult to expect people who have four other paid channel divisions ahead of you to find you in the morass that’s out there,” Casselman observes. “So it’s somehow going to be necessary to distinguish yourself … by saying something that reaches their heart more than their wallet, because their wallet is the lagging indicator you’ve reached their heart.”

Jonathan Miller, director of the arthouse streaming service Ovid, agrees that competing against the major players in the streaming business can be difficult, even when you have a well-defined niche.

Ovid launched in 2019 as a collaborative project by six founding content partners to create a streaming market for independent and alternative films. While the platform received some initial buzz and media attention, Miller says that has been challenging to maintain, especially as more high-profile players have launched streaming sites.

The service has nevertheless grown, as Ovid now has 40 companies supplying it with content, allowing it to offer more variety and depth in its library. Also, the independent/arthouse documentary space is an area that is currently without a lot of competition from other streamers, Miller notes. (While Ovid does not offer exclusively non-fiction content, roughly 1,100 out of the 1,400 films on the service are documentaries).

Still, the challenges streamers face to even be profitable gives Miller doubt about how much room there is for more streaming platforms to launch.

“People will start [platforms] because people will want to do interesting projects, and they may have some money or content lying around,” he comments. “But the obstacles to being financially successful that we’ve learned about since we started trying to do this are pretty substantial.”

Still, challenge and opportunity can sometimes arrive hand-in-hand. Lacob says Documentary+’s availability on various platforms has helped accelerate its growth, with FAST channels becoming a major catalyst. He adds that he’s bullish about AVOD being the future for the streaming industry, as it doesn’t cost as much for viewers to access.

“People are also tired of paying for all these individual services, they’re tired of paying even for DirecTV and other cable outlets. AVOD and FAST and this whole universe allows people to not sign up for anything, to watch for free and sit back,” Lacob says.

Looking ahead, MagellanTV’s Diefenbach predicts the streaming industry is mid-cycle, with a lot of opportunity for platforms still to emerge. He says a time will come when there’s more consolidation, but there is still room for the streaming ecosystem to expand.

In the meantime, he expects platforms will soon have to think more about engaging viewers and building community, which includes thinking differently about their products. That nimbleness is already necessary, Diefenbach says, and it’s a real challenge for companies when it comes to keeping up with audience expectations around technology and availability.

“The technology is changing so quickly, and the expectations of the consumer about how well that technology [works], how easy it is to move across devices, [are so] high that companies like us, we have to move really fast and reinvent and reprogram and redesign at all times to keep up,” Diefenbach says. “It’s a huge challenge, and a huge investment.”

This story first appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click our subscription link here for more information.

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