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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.

People

Expensify CEO David Barrett: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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What TV remotes tell us about power struggles in streaming

TV remote controls are a major battlefield in the TV wars, which are fought one branded button at a time.

LG's 2021 smart TV remote control features a total of three buttons for voice control.

Image: LG

Don't touch that dial: As TV manufacturers are unveiling their 2021 models at this year's virtual CES, they're also giving us a first look at the remote controls that will be shipping with those big, shiny and smart TV sets.

There were a few surprises. LG's remotes come with built-in NFC to transfer videos from mobile devices to the TV, and Samsung's remotes incorporate solar cells that are meant to reduce battery waste. The new crop of 2021 TV remotes also perfectly encapsulates the conflicts and power struggles in the TV industry, from streaming services vying for attention to voice assistant platforms' fierce competition.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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A growing user base will give it even more power in content negotiations.

Roku's emerging as one of the streaming war's biggest winners.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Power

LG has acquired TV ad tech startup Alphonso

Alphonso could help LG build out its smart TV advertising business.

Alphonso could help LG monetize its TVs with ads.

Photo: LG

Korean consumer electronics giant LG has acquired a controlling stake in TV advertising measurement startup Alphonso, investing more than $80 million in the company. LG announced the acquisition Wednesday, a day after Protocol first reported that a deal was imminent. With the acquisition, LG is looking to beef up the advertising business on its smart TV platform and better compete with companies like Samsung, Roku, Amazon and Vizio.

"Our investment in Alphonso is a key component of our digital transformation strategy focusing on AI, big data and cloud to fundamentally change how consumers interact with their devices," said LG Home Entertainment President Park Hyoung-sei. "With Alphonso's TV data analysis capabilities, LG will be able to provide even more customized services and content to consumers and we are proud to welcome Alphonso to the LG family."

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

People

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Aaron Mitchell, the director of HR for Netflix Animation Studio, had already been working for months on a proposal to address the racial wealth gap when the killing of George Floyd rocked the country in May. Suddenly, it seemed like every company was coming out of the woodwork with pledges to invest and diversify and do better.

On May 27, Mitchell sent an email to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking him what he thought of a plan to invest $100 million in Black banks, a unique strategy to funnel more capital back into Black communities struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, no other corporation had made a similar public commitment. Mitchell said the $100 million was an arbitrary amount of money with symbolic significance: It was the same amount that Netflix spent on "House of Cards," a flashpoint in the company's history.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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