Amazon’s streaming efforts have long been all about Prime Video. So the company caught pundits by surprise when, in early 2019, it launched a stand-alone ad-supported streaming service called IMDb Freedive, with Techcrunch calling the move “a bit odd.”
Nearly four years and two rebrandings later, Amazon’s ad-supported video efforts appear to be flourishing. Viewership of the service grew by 138% from 2020 to 2021, according to Amazon. The company declined to share any updated performance data on the service, which is now called Freevee, but a spokesperson told Protocol the performance of originals in particular “exceeded expectations,” leading Amazon to increase investments into original content by 70% year-over-year.
Key to Freevee’s success has been its deep integration with Prime Video and Fire TV, where it lives alongside ad-free subscription fare, pay-as-you-go rentals, and third-party subscription channels. Now Amazon is looking to broaden its international reach.
“I'm very excited about the possibility of an ad-supported service in front of the paywall in many countries,” said Ryan Pirozzi, who has been working on Amazon’s video strategy for over a decade and became head of Freevee in August.
IMDb TV was not standing out
When Amazon first launched its free video service, it was looking to capitalize on the IMDb brand it has owned since 1998. “Our early thinking was, people recognize that brand,” said Pirozzi. However, the branding didn’t exactly catch on with consumers, in part because IMDb was best known as a database for industry professionals.
Changing the service’s name to IMDb TV did little to solve those issues, which is why the company ultimately switched to the Freevee brand in April of this year. “IMDb TV wasn’t standing out as much as Freevee is,” Pirozzi said. “Personally, I’m very happy we rebranded.”
Third-party data suggests the rebrand is working: The service’s mobile apps generated about as many downloads since the rebrand as it did during the years preceding it, according to estimates by app intelligence company Sensor Tower. For the five months following the rebrand, downloads were up 113% compared to the preceding five months.
The total number of installs of the Freevee mobile app is still fairly small, with Sensor Tower estimating the app has been downloaded 3.3 million times from Google Play and the App Store, while Google’s own data puts the number of downloads from Google Play between 5 and 10 million.
The service is closely integrated with Prime Video, where its movies and shows are being presented as “free with ads.” Mixing subscription-exclusive content with free, ad-supported videos can be confusing to consumers, but Pirozzi argued that it was a trade-off for being able to offer more choices, which also includes access to pay-as-you-go movie rentals.
“We have to work on eliminating any confusion,” he said, adding that Freevee was growing both as a stand-alone service and within Prime Video. “I think people are getting it. Our best SVOD customers are our best TVOD customers [and are also] our most engaged AVOD customers.”
Uncertain times for streaming
The ascent of Freevee happens as the entire streaming industry is rediscovering free, ad-supported video. Fox has plans to turn its free Tubi streaming service into a billion-dollar business; Viacom’s Pluto TV reached that same milestone a year ago. Even Netflix, which long resisted advertising, is getting ready to launch an ad-supported tier.
At the same time, there are some signs that parts of the industry are slowing their investments into originals in light of a more challenging economic climate. Warner Bros. Discovery, for instance, canceled several projects for HBO Max recently.
Freevee’s linear format allows Amazon to carry some content that it would otherwise not have the rights to. Photo Illustration: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
“I guess I must have missed the memo,” Pirozzi retorted, pointing to the fact that Freevee’s investments into originals have increased by 70%. Some of the originals running in the service include “Bosch: Legacy,” a spin-off of the police procedural “Bosch” that ran on Prime Video for seven seasons; “Judy Justice,” a remake of “Judge Judy”; and ex-con comedy “Sprung.”
These shows may not pay for themselves, but they do work to attract new audiences. “Originals and pay-window movies are a customer acquisition driver,” Pirozzi said. “Then we drive depth of engagement with licensed content, deeper catalog, and linear channels. That model has been working for us, and we see big uplifts in our business when we launch something like a ‘Bosch: Legacy.’”
Many of these originals are also being repurposed for linear free ad-supported streaming channels, also known as FAST channels among industry insiders. “This rise of FAST linear channels is so fascinating,” Pirozzi said. “To some people, it’s sort of retro. It’s in a linear format without pause or fast forward. But that’s really growing and working for us.”
Freevee’s more than 100 free linear channels are closely integrated with Amazon’s Fire TV platform, where they are presented as part of the live TV tab. The linear format also allows Amazon to carry some content that it would otherwise not have the rights to, Pirozzi explained. “‘Kim’s Convenience,’ one of my favorite shows on Netflix, is not available to license on demand,” he said. However, Amazon was able to license the show as a linear channel, which it now streams to Freevee viewers.
Freevee debuted in Germany in August after expanding to the U.K. last year. Now, the service is looking to jump into new territories.
“We have greater international expansion plans,” Pirozzi said. He declined to share Amazon’s exact road map, but suggested that there may be opportunities in Latin America, Southern Europe, and Asia, among others.
“There are so many places where the value proposition of an ad-supported video product will be very popular with customers,” he said.