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Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.

How an art slideshow became a TV network

How an art slideshow became a TV network

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up, a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment. This week, Next Up is all about new opportunities to launch TV networks online and streaming services doubling down on watch parties.

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The Big Story

Loupe sees big growth on Pluto, launches on Xfinity

When Dot Bustelo worked on Apple's Logic Pro team, she would often spend hours in the recording studio, with classic movies playing on TV screens in the background. Having cinematic masterpieces looped on mute provided some visual inspiration to artists and made for a great icebreaker, Bustelo recently told me. It also made her wonder: Why isn't there an app for that?

Bustelo went on to build that app with her startup Loupe, and debuted it on the first Apple TV with integrated App Store in 2015. Loupe's app allows users to launch curated playlists of artwork from around the world on their TVs, including slideshows of paintings, photography and motion art. Viewers can also buy prints of the artwork directly from Loupe. The app gained a loyal following among Apple TV users, who regularly tune in for an average of two hours per session, leading Loupe to expand to Fire TV, Android TV and the web.

Then, things got crazy. This summer, Bustelo launched a channel for Loupe on Pluto TV, the linear streaming service acquired by Viacom last year. A month later, Loupe had already reached 500,000 viewers on Pluto. In late October, Bustelo told me that Loupe was on track to reach an audience of 2 million viewers by the end of the year, amounting to a 10x year-over-year growth rate.

"My expectations changed dramatically seeing the popularity of Loupe on Pluto TV," Bustelo told me. It also changed how Loupe is approaching the TV business:

  • At the beginning of the year, Bustelo was focused on B2B deals to bring Loupe to airports and hotels. The pandemic, and Loupe's success on Pluto, helped convince her to put a bigger emphasis on the living room. Just this week, Loupe announced that it is launching on Comcast's Xfinity set-top boxes and Flex streaming devices.
  • Loupe's bread and butter has been the sale of the prints; the company takes a 30% cut. And with the success on Pluto, advertising revenue is becoming a bigger factor.
  • Loupe has also begun to build sponsored channels and is ramping up the number of themed playlists for Pluto and other platforms. "We can deliver infinite playlist combinations," Bustelo said.

I've long been fascinated by the growing popularity of linear channels on services like Pluto and Xumo as well as smart TVs from Samsung, Vizio and others. Samsung SVP Sang Kim recently told me that the company is streaming "billions of minutes" of such programming every month; Wurl, which powers dozens of channels across multiple services, reported this week that its viewing hours are up 98% year-over-year, with ad impressions growing by 129% in just the past quarter.

Part of the allure of Pluto and similar services is that its channels look and feel like traditional cable television without the cable bill. Viewers can simply turn on a channel and lean back to enjoy whatever is playing, or channel surf to find something to watch — an experience that often requires less effort and commitment than selecting a new show to binge on Netflix or HBO Max.

Some industry insiders call the programming on Pluto FAST, an abbreviation of free, ad-supported television. "We consider ourselves an alternative FAST channel," Bustelo told me. A TV channel, one might add, that comes with far less overhead than a traditional network. Loupe has no anchors, no studios, no satellite uplink. "Our production costs are so low," Bustelo admitted.

Then again, some cable networks have effectively programmed reruns of classic shows for years. Compared to that model, Loupe's programming is refreshingly unique — and perhaps proof that in 2020, a TV network doesn't need to look like plain old cable anymore, or even be on cable for that matter, to be successful.

Overheard

"We shall fight on the beaches, in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills." AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron, quoting Churchill during the company's earnings call, to signal that it is committed to fight tooth and nail to survive the pandemic.

"It's kind of the opposite of Quibi." NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, describing his company's Peacock streaming service.

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Watch Out

Amazon, Plex and others to double down on watch parties

Amazon is looking to expand co-viewing functionality beyond desktop PCs, according to a job listing published by the company last week. The company's Prime Video Global team is looking for an Android engineer to work on "new customer facing mobile and device experiences," according to the job post, which also suggests that applicants will work on "varying codebases spanning multiple device platforms."

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment. Beyond specific plans for mobile and TV-connected devices, the job listing also suggests a broader trend:

Watch parties are here to stay. "You get to be on the ground floor of expanding co-viewing experiences by building critical components for features that will last for many years to come," the job listing reads. That's a trend I'm also hearing from other platforms. Launched during the pandemic as a way to avoid social distancing loneliness, co-viewing features have become an opportunity to re-create that social watercooler moment, one watch party at a time.

Now, services are starting to take a closer look at the data, and are experimenting with ways to expand and enhance co-viewing.

  • Plex has seen "solid growth" for watch parties, according to a spokesperson. As one of the few services that allows co-viewing across multiple platforms, Plex has seen especially high interest on connected TVs: 50% of viewing happens on TVs via Roku, Android TV or Apple TV; 39% on desktop; and 11% on mobile devices, according to Plex's spokesperson. The company now wants to expand co-viewing support to smart TVs and game consoles, and launch a scheduling feature with reminders for invited guests, among other things.
  • Hulu is testing watch parties for live TV. The company rolled out a first live co-viewing test alongside ABC News Live election coverage this week.
  • Android TV is getting watch parties with live voice transcription chat, courtesy of Rad. The app, which was formerly known as Littlstar, launched a new version on Google's smart TV platform this week that uses voice-enabled remote controls to let viewers dictate text chat messages. Co-viewing is limited to live content right now, some of which is only available to paying subscribers, but Rad plans to expand the feature to additional content and platforms in the coming months.

"Our ideas for this were in pre-development before COVID really hit, but the pandemic created the opportunity to accelerate the features," said Tony Mugavero, CEO of Rad maker Little Star Media. "This will work across devices and include VR chat capabilities soon."

There are still a few dark horses in this race:

  • Netflix has yet to launch its own co-viewing feature. The company has in the past been hesitant to add any social features to its app that could distract from the content, but it could arguably add synced viewing as another way to aid discovery. Don't know what to watch? Just ask your friends!
  • Device makers. We haven't seen system-wide co-viewing features on any smart TV platform, and likely won't anytime soon. That's not for technical reasons, but because manufacturers don't want to endanger their relationships with content giants like Netflix. However, there's no reason Samsung couldn't enable co-viewing for its TV Plus service, or Roku couldn't add similar features to the Roku Channel.

Either way, we'll likely see a lot more on the co-viewing front in the coming months, and perhaps even after the pandemic subsides.

Fast Forward

AT&T is considering selling part of its pay TV business. Apollo Management is reportedly in the running. Did someone say the future of pay TV was private equity?

Netflix is raising its prices in the U.S. Its standard plan now costs $14. Netflix price increases used to lead to a lot of backlash, but with HBO Max costing $15, most people will likely shrug this one off.

The Oculus Quest 2 Elite Strap is breaking. No, not records, just breaking. Facebook has paused shipments and is looking into the issue.

Comcast wants to partner with Walmart on smart TVs. This Wall Street Journal comes after Protocol broke the news about Comcast looking to license its Xfinity OS to TV makers earlier this summer.

The Apple One subscription plan is now available. The base plan gets consumers Apple Music, Apple TV+, iCloud and Apple Arcade for $15 a month. That's $6 in monthly savings, unless you're buying an iPhone, in which case you get a lot of this for free. Bundles are complicated!

News app Haystack added 16 live channels, including ABC News Live and CBSN. In case you feel like watching any more news after this week.

On Protocol: A court sided with Sonos in its Google lawsuit. A federal court decided on Monday that one of the patents used in Google's countersuit against Sonos is invalid. A small victory for Sonos, as both lawsuits continue.

Pandora becomes the first third-party music service on Apple's HomePod. The music service will also work on the upcoming HomePod Mini. Still no word on Spotify support.

Jeffrey Katzenberg told Quibi employees to listen to the "Trolls" soundtrack the day the company announced it was shutting down, according to this WSJ post-mortem, further proving that Quibi execs had a problem reading the room.

Auf Wiedersehen

I've written quite a bit about the growing importance of AI for video production in recent months, ranging from deepfake commercials to virtual production technology for live TV. It's a fascinating trend with massive implications for the entertainment industry — but it's also worth keeping things in perspective.

When Scottish soccer club Inverness Caledonian Thistle recently faced off against AYR United, the two teams had to play in front of empty stands due to COVID restrictions. However, fans tuning in on TV got to see … a bald guy, mostly, and not much else. The match was captured by an automated camera that used AI to identify the ball, but it kept focusing on the hairless head of a linesman instead. Maybe the robots aren't quite ready to take over the world just yet.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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