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Streaming video market poised for more service switching and 'cycling'

It's abundantly clear that consumers are flocking to streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic as they hunker down at home. And thanks to new premium services such as Disney+ and other services already here or still on the way, such as NBCU's Peacock and WarnerMedia's HBO Max, there's an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.

While there's seemingly no limit to the number and type of subscription streaming services at consumers' fingertips, there's still a limit to the number that consumers will pay for, a situation that will become increasingly apparent during a pandemic in which consumers tighten their belts.

That scenario is expected to lead to more switching and "cycling" of services as popular TV series and shows come in and out of season, according to industry execs and experts who took part in a virtual event, "Taking Streaming Video to the Next Level," hosted by Light Reading on Monday.

For example, consumers who subscribe to Disney+ might gobble up the first season of the hit series The Mandalorian, only to take a hiatus from the OTT service until it returns for season two. Fans of Star Trek: Picard, a new series that just wrapped up its first season on CBS All Access, might consider doing the same.

A new form of seasonality
In that sense, SVoD will start to take on the kind of "seasonality" that traditional TV is known for, said Mitch Weinraub, a pay-TV industry vet who most recently was an exec with Dish Network's Sling TV and AirTV divisions.

While some cycling back and forth between SVoD services is expected, Weinraub also believes that most consumers will use Netflix or another major general entertainment as their "underlying foundation."

That scenario will also keep the general streaming market in a state of flux as consumers switch and cycle the other services they subscribe to. "I don't think there's a big, forever winner just because [an SVoD service] launches with a cool piece of content at this point," Weinraub said. "I think it really is going to cycle. I think it will be a seasonality decision for a lot of subscribers going forward."

In a keynote discussion held during Monday's virtual event, Rob Holmes, VP of programming at Roku, said he does expect consumers to continue stacking a certain number of SVoD services. But he also believes some will be switched and cycled as new series and other premium content come and go.

Holmes suggests that, in general, consumers appear to be willing to pay up to $40 per month for a package of subscription streaming services.

Steve Nason, director of research at Parks Associates, said the number of consumers who take four or more subscription OTT services has grown by nearly 25% from Q1 2017 to Q1 2020, with those taking two or more services rising by more than 50%.

Nason said the "big three" – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu – have formed the basis of that grouping among US broadband homes, with Disney+, which just crossed 50 million subs worldwide, becoming a powerful part of that multi-subscription foundation.

But the pandemic, paired with a lot more stay-at-home time, is amplifying what was already expected to be a massive year for streaming, creating a "watershed moment" for the industry, Holmes said.

"We're in a different world with cord-cutting. I think this just accelerates that," Holmes explained, noting later that Roku has seen mid-day viewing grow substantially during the pandemic. "It's clear that people are really diving in and engaging with streaming during this unprecedented event."

To help make his point, Holmes noted that Roku last week reported preliminary Q1 2020 results showing that its users streamed more than 13 billion hours in the first quarter of 2020, a 49% year-on-year increase. Roku also estimated it ended the period with 39.8 million accounts, up 3 million since the end of 2019. With everything rolled up, Roku's streaming totals equate to about 3.6 hours per active account per day.

A streaming free-for-all
The pandemic, paired with stay-at-home orders, has also led to a wide range of lengthy promotion and discounts and even free offers from some SVoD services and virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPDs) as all services vie for attention from cord-cutters and price-sensitive consumers.

Sling TV, for example, is offering free access to its "Blue" tier (which features more than 50 channels, including CNN, Fox News, HGTV and FX) each night from 5 p.m. to midnight. Vidgo, meanwhile, has cut $10 off the price of its English pay-TV package, and CuriosityStream reduced its subscription rate by 40% in recent weeks.

"If everybody was fighting and looking to grab market share, what COVID-19 has done is make it an all-out scramble," Weinraub said. "Everybody is doing everything they can to grab share at this point in the streaming space."

While the pandemic has opened a critical window for subscription streaming services, it is also creating a big opportunity for free, ad-supported services and platforms such as Tubi (now part of Fox Corp.), Pluto TV (part of ViacomCBS), Zone TV and Xumo (now part of Comcast) to connect with consumers.

"This is now that critical window to acquire streaming subscribers, whether they are paying subscribers or just folks who are going to watch on a regular basis on an ad-supported model," Weinraub said. "It's just moving everything that would've happened over years happening in months."

Red Hat, the IBM-owned open source software specialist, has also seen an uptick in advertising-related technology activity, according to Robert Wilmoth, chief architect, North American Service Provider Team, at Red Hat.

Media companies and service providers, he noted, are ramping up their plans to target ads and get a better understanding of how consumers are using streaming services and what they are watching during the middle of the day.

"The mad scramble is happening both on the provider side and the consumer side trying to figure out how to navigate this new world," Wilmoth said.

ATSC 3.0 gets into the act
Local TV broadcasters are also trying to get into the streaming game in a bigger way with ATSC 3.0, a next-gen, IP-based signaling standard that will enable broadcasters to deliver services and apps to TV and other connected devices, including smartphones and tablets.

Jim DeChant, VP of technology at News-Press & Gazette Broadcasting, said his company has an ATSC 3.0 facility licensed in Santa Barbara, California, that is focused on testing and development and is using the technology to stream a 24-hour news channel.

"We see a pretty aggressive future there [with ATSC 3.0]," DeChant said, noting that he likes to refer to ATSC 3.0 as "application television."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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