Power

With 24/7 programming, the future of TV looks a lot like its past

Plex is the latest video service to add linear online TV channels, a trend that could accelerate cord cutting.

Plex's live TV guide

Ad-supported linear programming is growing in popularity across the industry.

Image: Courtesy of Plex

Plex is bringing back the cable grid. The popular media center app added 80 live TV channels Thursday, complete with a programming guide that will look very familiar to anyone who has ever subscribed to pay TV, albeit with a few key differences: Plex's new live TV service is free to use, and it doesn't feature popular cable channels like CNN, TBS or Lifetime.

Instead, its lineup includes channels like Reuters, Toon Goggles and the Bob Ross Channel. This type of ad-supported linear programming is growing in popularity across the industry; with consumers forced to tighten their belts, it could further contribute to cord cutting and fasten the shift from cable bundles to online video — a future that may, at least to consumers, look very much like the best of TV's past.

Plex has long positioned itself as an app for cord cutters, with free on-demand video and DVR functionality for broadcast TV networks. With its 80 new live TV channels, the company wants to offer its customers an experience that's closer to the lean-back viewing known from traditional pay TV. The Los Gatos-based startup has plans to add another 50 to 100 channels in the coming months.

Executives freely admitted in a conversation with Protocol that their take on live TV doesn't provide a 1:1 replacement for individual cable channels, but they argued that it's a good-enough experience. "It becomes a dirt-cheap way to replace cable," said co-founder and Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski.

One of the companies supplying Plex with TV feeds is Cinedigm, which operates around a dozen linear online channels, Including the Bob Ross channel, ConTV and standup-focused Comedy Dynamics. Cinedigm only began developing linear channels a little over a year ago and already has 13.5 million monthly viewers for these channels on smart TVs. "There is a lot of power in lean-back entertainment," said Cinedigm Digital Networks President Erick Opeka.

W12 Studios CEO Fabian Birgfeld, whose company has designed TV apps and interfaces for companies like Verizon, Vodafone and CNN, said there's a reason that online services are rediscovering programmed channels as a way to package video content. "The real beauty of TV has been in the curation of channels," Birgfeld said. Not only have traditional TV channels long invited consumers to lean back and watch with little to no effort, they're also known for having a distinct identity and set of programming. "Every channel more or less stood for something," he said.

In the early days of streaming, services like Netflix went in the other direction and focused purely on choice. "There was no curatorial voice," Birgfeld said. "It was all about on-demand."

That changed a few years ago, when services like Pluto TV began to program movies and TV as thematic 24/7 channels. However, the trend didn't really take off until smart TV manufacturers like LG and Samsung began to incorporate these types of channels directly into their existing programming guides, placing them right next to broadcasters like ABC and CBS, and allowing viewers to channel surf through online programming with their remote controls. "That really dramatically shifted it," Opeka said.

He believes that the trend to program linear channels is catching on, even among legacy media companies that may operate traditional TV networks as well. "You're gonna have hundreds of channels of premium movies and TV shows," Opeka said. And as bigger brands embrace the trend, the content itself may also become a lot more recognizable. "It's like cable TV in the late '70s right now," he said. "It's definitely going to get better." Olechowski agreed: "It's unbelievable, the amount of content moving in that direction."

In the traditional cable world, programmers frequently strike multiyear carriage deals for large bundles of channels, which include both crown jewels and lesser-known properties. For every Comedy Central, there's an MTV Classic that barely anyone watches. "In the FAST world, it will be far more Darwinistic," Opeka said, using industry shorthand for "free ad-supported streaming TV," and adding: "The race to create things that resonate with viewers is on."

"We'll not keep the ones that are not performing well," Olechowski said.

The trend toward 24/7 linear streaming is in part driven by a handful of startups, including Frequency, Wurl and Amagi, that have developed technology to program video assets in a TV-like fashion. While linear streaming channels used to be little more than playlists, they now feature channel IDs, and ad breaks aren't interrupting actors midsentence anymore. The next step will be to marry those linear channels with on-demand assets, allowing viewers who stumble across a certain show to explore the rest of a season. "Linear as a discovery tool to other content is really important," Opeka said.

A better integration of live and on-demand could ultimately also lead to better interfaces than the traditional grid guide, Birgfeld said. "The guide has always been a necessary evil," he said, adding that many companies simply stuck to it for legacy reasons. "It's not because it's the best solution."

One of the services that has been combining linear and on-demand viewing is Haystack News. The video aggregation service streams personalized news channels, incorporating programming from 300 publishing partners, including local TV networks covering 90% of the U.S.. Haystack's smart TV apps look and feel very much like a news network, albeit with the advantages of online video: Viewers can skip over individual clips, pick their own news sources, and dive deeper on topics they're most interested in — kind of like Pandora, but for news video. The concept seems to work: Haystack streams 1 billion minutes of news a year, and it saw 145% growth in 2019, according to Haystack co-founder Ish Harshawat.

Last week, Haystack took this combination of broadcast and on-demand to the next level by introducing a customized news ticker on Roku streaming devices. Similar to a traditional news chyron, Haystack's ticker displays top stories, stocks and weather. But unlike on broadcast TV, the ticker is personalized for every viewer, down to a location-adjusted weather forecast.

Viewers can also interact with the ticker with their TV or streaming device remote, cycling through topics or stock quotes. "We are providing an interactive layer," Harshawat said. Viewers can even use the news ticker as a starting point to watch videos on any topic. "If you see a story you want to pivot to, you can do so," he said. Haystack will be bringing the news ticker to other streaming devices soon, and is also looking to add other interactive overlays down the line, Harshawat said. "The sky's the limit now."

Free 24/7 streaming channels and similar services do have the potential to significantly alter the TV industry landscape. Not only can these channels provide a good-enough basic cable replacement for cord-cutters looking for a lean-back viewing experience, they also could hasten the demise of big cable bundles in other ways. Pay TV operators, which have long complained about the ever-growing licensing fees of traditional TV networks, are increasingly looking to these new channels as a way to augment their own packages on the cheap.

Comcast added Failarmy and The Pet Collective, two 24/7 channels operated by Jukin Media that are also available on a number of smart TVs, to its Xfinity set-top boxes last spring. "We are seeing exponential growth in that area," Jukin CEO Jonathan Skogmo said. He recently told Protocol about Jukin's linear channels, adding that the lines between streaming channels and traditional TV are increasingly getting blurry. "We are treating it like a regular linear television network," Skogmo said.

The success of companies like Jukin and Cinedigm in this space also demonstrates how 24/7 linear streaming can lower the barrier of entry for programmers. Some Plex employees took this notion even further during a recent internal hackathon: They built a way for Plex users to program their personal video collections into their very own linear 24/7 TV networks, for instance to curate TV programming for their children.

Companies often use these types of hackathons to explore ideas that ultimately don't turn into finished products. Still the hack hints at a not-so-distant future in which what we watch on our televisions may look and feel like traditional TV, while at the same time making use of hyper-personalization enabled by modern technology.

In other words: In the future, we may all be programming our own 24/7 live TV networks.

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