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Streaming firms are wrestling for visibility in CTV, but who will win?

Streaming firms are wrestling for visibility in CTV, but who will win?

As eyeballs and money move into the burgeoning world of connected television, content producers are locked in a fierce battle to establish themselves as the new home of consumption. Makers of TVs, streaming sticks and gaming consoles are meanwhile jostling to be the definitive operating system on the home’s biggest screen. They can’t all win. As part of our deep dive into the Future of TV, The Drum explores this fight for visibility.

60% of UK households subscribe to at least one streaming service according to Ofcom. Research from Comcast firm FreeWheel meanwhile says that 80% of Brits own a connected television (CTV), with 61% saying it is their preferred video-watching tool and a fifth saying they watch free, ad-supported TV there.

Globally, video companies are vying to catch growing audiences on numerous burgeoning platforms that are fragmented. The contest to establish the new TV consumption habit starts now.

The friction

Rhys McLachlan is director of advanced advertising at ITV, a legacy broadcaster racing to unlock the benefits of CTV. He says: “The speed at which it has become the default standard viewing mode for so many households has been without precedence.”

CTV has been normalized, so it’s not just a pandemic flare-up. This has intensified the competition to be the de facto software controlling the TV and influencing the viewer’s journey – either by ads or paid placements of media partners in the app hierarchy. The launch of Discovery+, for example, was well positioned in a variety of ecosystems to drive that initial influx.

It’s a point of friction, says McLachlan. ITV as a public service broadcaster is making the case for ‘rules of precedence’ around its – and others’ – prominence in the software.

“There’s an arm wrestle for the above-the-fold placement. It’s digital real estate. There are no ‘gimmies’ in CTV, but we’ll continue to argue that you know this is a normalized platform for the distribution of television, film and the public service broadcaster channels, and therefore rules and provisions should be consistent with the other means of distribution.”

There’s a patchwork of tech opening up the CTV world. Smart TV sets (from electronics companies including Samsung, LG and Panasonic) can be overridden by streaming devices (such as Roku or Amazon Fire Stick). Or maybe the device boots up straight into a pay-TV box or a games console – such as Microsoft’s Xbox, which must be looking at the space with interest.

Freewheel’s report says half of CTV users in the UK watch via a smart TV, while 47% use a set-top box. A smaller segment uses a TV stick, TV box or gaming console, giving us a good idea of how many users can be acquired through each channel.

There are many gateways into CTV... too many.

Consolidation

At the start of 2021, Roku reached 51.2 million active users globally, up 39% in a year. It is keeping pace with the growth of Amazon’s Fire TV business.

Mike Shaw, director of international advertising sales at Roku, urges me to get a Roku TV to “eliminate the many cords and dongles from my viewing set-up”. Convenience will be a driver of the consumer’s tech consolidation ahead. How many remote controls can you really keep track of?

From a software perspective, ease of use is vital. Roku wants to be a TV one-stop-shop – where, ideally, I’ll find myself often browsing the ad-supported The Roku Channel, which recently absorbed all of Quibi’s doomed but assuredly quality content.

Shaw believes there will be a “consolidation of TV operating systems“, similar to what happened in the past on mainframes, computers and smartphones. As a market leader, Roku will have a big say in how that shapes out. Historically, says Shaw, it is the operating systems purpose-built for a platform that win.

“When you port them over to another platform, they often struggle. The dominant mainframe OS didn’t win in the personal computer world and the dominant computer OS didn’t win in the mobile space. Our OS has been purpose-built for TV.”

He thinks that many of the TV manufacturers will be the first to blink and cede their stake in the software market. There’s a reason so many mobiles run on Google’s Android operating system – software is hard.

“Developing an easy-to-use TV OS that comes with thousands of streaming channels is incredibly difficult. Maintaining the TV experience with updates and adding new streaming channels is even harder, and often not part of the DNA of a hardware manufacturer.

“Entertainment publishers only want to support a small number of platforms, which will drive the consolidation.”

Focus on the user will be Roku’s differentiator. “We don’t have to worry or focus on selling batteries or building driverless cars.”

The choice

After about 15 clicks to the right on the boot-up menu, my Samsung TV (which, naturally, wants me to browse Samsung TV Plus instead) takes me to Rakuten TV. I’m greeted by a free trial for US streaming service StarzPlay. This mid-tier streaming service carries Black Sails as well as DC’s Doom Patrol and Pennyworth. It’s a good deal and one I would never have seen had I not literally been writing a feature on CTV discoverability. A new deal signed this week ought to address that, but it is illustrative of the wealth of consumer choice.

Rakuten TV was founded in 2010 with promise to be ‘your cinema at home’. 10 years later, cinema only truly lived at home. James Collins, senior vice-president of media networks at Rakuten Advertising, says Covid-19 immediately brought 3m new SVOD markets into the market. For many, TV was the answer to the insurmountable issues occurring outside.

But there’s a difference. Rakuten TV argues that many of these buyers are disappearing from linear and traditional channels. It’s a common pitch to buyers. Collins says there is a significant proportion of this CTV audience that cannot be reached via traditional TV. “This is the incremental audience that media buyers are looking to reach and, in Europe, this currently represents around 21% of consumers.”

Broadcasters are all too aware they need to chase this chunk and win them back. ITV’s McLachlan is building Planet V with the very intention of making the ad experience better for these people. With their brand awareness and content, the legacy broadcasters are confident they will bridge the gap whether or not they gain priority placement in these softwares.

eMarketer forecasts that UK CTV users will grow from 40.9 million in 2020 to 44.4 million in 2024. The writing’s on the wall. It’s just another battleground, like the analogue switch-off in 2012.

Owning those new users will require an understanding of what they want. Collins thinks that boils down to three things; the content distribution, tech accessibility and consumer preference. Cross-device viewing is also an important factor.

There’s another factor at play. Rakuten TV believes it will see a surge in people watching free ad-funded TV, simply because the top content has fragmented across dozens of pay-to-play services. If viewers can even keep track of where their favorite shows are, they might not have the budget to access them all.

Collins points to research that says 64% of British viewers are more likely to choose an ad-supported streaming service over a paid subscription, and that more than half (58%) prefer to watch free ad-supported programming versus paying for an ad-free experience.

The narrative that the CTV shift is occurring because of advertising on linear is unfounded, he believes. And with the wealth of first-party data ahead, there’s a future where that StarzPlay trial gets promoted to me based on my previous consumption.

The buyers say

Michelle Sarpong, trading director at The7stars, is among those buying these ads on TV and later CTV. For her, the easiest-to-buy platforms will be the ones her sector favors – that’s currently those in the broadcaster video-on-demand space (like ITV).

Meanwhile, on the consumer-side, she sees people buying TVs based on the software they carry – that have what they need, are easiest to navigate, carry the most trust.

“You are only as good as your content and, similar to the digital market, not everyone will survive in the distant future,” she says.

Joe Evea is director of Media 16, an agency specializing in buying CTV inventory, and believes the “CTV space is very similar to the magazine market 15 years ago. ”There are a range of ‘big’ players offering general entertainment aimed at a broad demographic, coupled with a growing number of independent and specialist publishers offering tailored content to audiences with specific interests”.

But consolidation is a must. There’s too much noise and confusion, Evea concludes. “Inevitably with such a range of choice comes some consumer confusion – there’s so much content that the average consumer could easily get lost among the noise.”

CTV has many things linear didn’t, but can it ever match the simplicity of those platforms? Those that can crack that may keep their new users forever.

From late April until early May, The Drum is taking a deep dive into what’s in store for the small screen as we launch our Future of TV hub. Sign up for The Drum’s Future of Media briefing here.

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