Protocol Next Up
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Free kicks: The story behind Real Madrid’s ad-supported streaming channel

A soccer stadium.

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Real Madrid is embracing ad-supported streaming and Facebook has put Oculus Quest cameras into its new AR glasses.

Also, save the date: Please join me for Future of Voice, a free online event exploring what's new and what's next for voice — featuring Pandora Senior Product Manager Ananya Sharan, Sonos VP Joseph Dureau and Xandra CEO Zach Johnson — on Sept. 9 at 12 p.m. PT. RSVP Now.

The Big Story

Free streaming services get soccer, other sports channels

North American Real Madrid fans have a new way of watching their favorite soccer club: Last week, Roku began streaming a free 24/7 Real Madrid TV channel on its streaming adapters and smart TVs. The channel will feature up to three matches of the famed soccer club per week, as well as live press conferences, training sessions, behind-the-scenes footage and more. And it's not a Roku exclusive: Fox-owned Tubi will launch Real Madrid TV as part of its new Tubi Sports vertical soon, and the channel is slated to launch on Pluto TV as well as Samsung devices in the near future as well.

Sports programming was supposed to be the lone holdout in a world that rapidly transitions to streaming; the thing that saves the cable bundle, or at least some semblance of it. And it definitely wasn't supposed to be free. So how is something like Real Madrid TV even possible?

  • For answers, I recently caught up with Cinedigm Chief Strategy Officer Erick Opeka, whose company is distributing Real Madrid TV as a free, ad-supported streaming channel in the U.S. and Canada.
  • And the situation is a little more complex and interesting than you might think. "European football fandom has been on a pretty dramatic rise" in North America, Opeka told me. Real Madrid is especially popular among Latino audiences, who happen to also be avid consumers of ad-supported video services.

So Real Madrid TV is meant to be a funnel. It will cater to casual soccer viewers, with the goal of turning them into hardcore fans who may eventually pay for access to even more programming. "When you want to reach a lot of people, that's how you do it," Opeka said. "You don't put it behind a paywall."

  • Part of that strategy are those 2-3 weekly matches, which Real Madrid TV is broadcasting with a 24- to 48-hour delay. Viewers of the free channel won't mind, Opeka argued: "Most people don't catch them when they first air." Plus, those casual viewers probably aren't stumbling across spoilers online, so the game will still be new to them.
  • At the same time, Real Madrid TV will be able to go deeper, and broadcast team events that won't make it on air on cable sports networks. That makes it interesting for hardcore fans as well, even if they watched the game live elsewhere. "You are hitting different segments of the audience," Opeka said.
  • Will it work? Only time will tell. "It's as much an experiment for Real Madrid as it is for us," Opeka admitted.

Such channels have been a massive success story ever since TV manufacturers like Samsung and LG began adding them directly to their program guides. And while some of the early free, ad-supported streaming channels — known as FAST channels among industry insiders — were just random B-movie playlists, the quality of programming has increased a lot in recent months.

  • Sports on Tubi, which Fox announced earlier this week, features 10 linear sports channels, including Pac-12 Insider, FOX Deportes and USA TODAY SportsWire.
  • Other European soccer teams may follow Real Madrid's example and launch their own free channels in the coming months, with Opeka telling me that many clubs carve out rights for more flexible licensing arrangements these days.

One reason sports has been so slow to streaming: TV contracts often last for many years. But with audiences moving to streaming in droves, Opeka argued that it's only a matter of time before some of the major streaming services snap up most of those rights; at that point, free services like Tubi and the Roku Channel could effectively become a replacement for basic cable or broadcast TV, and stream a subset of games, while the rest is part of a paid bundle.

Once sports fully transition to streaming, traditional pay TV bundles are poised to collapse like a game of Jenga, he said. "It's the last brick in the tower to be pulled out."

Overheard

"Leisure defaulted to TV for decades. It no longer does." — Matthew Ball, brilliant as usual, on why Netflix is entering gaming.

"It's very relevant to us and our future plans." — Valve product designer Greg Coomer, when asked about plans for a standalone VR headset.

A MESSAGE FROM CHAINALYSIS

Ransomware victims paid over $416 million worth of cryptocurrency to attackers in 2020, more than quadrupling 2019 totals. As of July 2021, we know that ransomware attackers have taken in at least $210 million worth of cryptocurrency from victims. Shouldn't we just ban crypto? The answer is no. Cryptocurrency is actually instrumental in fighting ransomware.

Learn More

Watch Out

This is how Facebook's Project Aria AR glasses work

It's been close to a year since Facebook first announced Project Aria, a research effort to test smart glasses with a small group of employees. The idea: collect a bunch of data to figure out what kind of sensors are required in future devices, executives said at the time.

There haven't been many public updates on the project in recent months, aside from a redacted FCC filing. Now, we are getting a first look at how the Project Aria device actually works, thanks to newly published regulatory documents that include the device user manual.

  • Project Aria's hardware is known as Gemini. The device is being called "Gemini EVT," with EVT (engineering valuation test) being a common acronym in the hardware industry for small product test runs of a few dozen units, meant to test both the design and functionality of a product before it is put into actual production.
  • There is no visual AR component. The filing confirmed what Facebook executives have been telling us for some time: Project Aria is all about collecting data, not displaying it. In addition to camera sensors, the manual also mentions a proximity sensor on the inner temple.
  • There's a mobile companion app called Ariane that can be used to set up the device, connect it to a Wi-Fi network, check its battery status and upload collected sensor data. There's also mention of alerts through the mobile app, but it's unclear what these alerts may look like.
  • The glasses are equipped with four cameras — the same as those that power the Oculus Quest 2 — capable of recording both photos and videos. Videos are recorded in the VRS file format, which captures all four camera streams simultaneously.
  • The hardware interface is fairly pared-down. There's a shutter button, a power button and a mute switch, which "toggles privacy mode on/off," according to the manual. It also has multiple LEDs to signal recording both to the wearer and bystanders.
  • Gemini glasses are using a Qualcomm chipset, and run a customized version of Android that is being called Oculus OS. The USB charging cable, which attaches to the glasses via a magnetic port, is also being used for Android ADB functionality.

Project Aria's Gemini glasses are clearly still an experimental device, and not meant for consumer use. However, the existence of a privacy mode, a relatively simple UI and the companion mobile app are all things that may find their way into future consumer products, including the smart glasses that Facebook is building in partnership with Ray-Ban.

The biggest surprise is perhaps that Facebook used the Quest's camera sensors for these glasses. This could have been a choice of convenience, but using four of these sensors could also be a sign that Facebook is already testing visual SLAM for future device iterations that will enable full 3D AR experiences.

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com.

Fast Forward

  • On Protocol: Sean Parker's SR Labs abandoned its hardware plans. The stealthy startup wanted to revolutionize home movies. Now, it's streaming films to awards show voters.
  • T-Mobile is footing the bill for Apple TV+. Subscribers of select T-Mobile plans get 12 months of Apple's streaming service for free.
  • On Protocol: Facebook's VR content exec Colum Slevin left for EA. The longtime Oculus exec is looking to tackle online abuse in the new role.
  • TikTok is courting AR developers with a new platform. Effect House could become a competitor to Facebook's Spark AR and Snap's Lens Studio.
  • IMDb CEO Col Needham has watched almost 13,500 movies, and he's apparently keeping track of all of them in paper notebooks. Does he know what his own website does?
  • Plex has a new CRO and CFO plus a VP of people, with execs joining from Pluto TV, NBCUniversal and Zappos, respectively.
  • Abandoning Amazon Channels will cost HBO 5 million subscribers. And this is a great story about HBO's long-coming decision to make that jump.
  • On Protocol: OnlyFans does what now? Seriously, this has been a rollercoaster of a news cycle. But apparently sex is OK now after all.

Auf Wiedersehen

Any chance you might be in San Francisco, Bristol or Cardiff in the coming days? Then you might want to check out "Wallace & Gromit: Fix Up The City," a new city-wide AR experience featuring none other than, you guessed it, Wallace and Gromit. I haven't had a chance to try it myself yet, but this Animation Magazine story makes it sound like a lot of fun. Now where can I get some Stilton?

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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