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Samsung is doubling down on free, ad-supported streaming: After turning Samsung TV Plus into a massive success story on smart TVs, Samsung is launching the service on some of its latest mobile phones this week. People who own a Galaxy Note20, Galaxy S20, Galaxy Note10 or Galaxy S10 will be able to access TV Plus on their devices starting Wednesday, the company announced Tuesday.
The mobile launch of TV Plus is remarkable for a few reasons. It underscores the growing popularity of ad-supported video viewing, and particularly the kind of linear lean-back viewing that TV Plus is known for. Beyond that, it's also a remarkable redemption for Samsung, which has long struggled to win over consumers for its own media services, and goes to show how important services have become to the company.
If you don't own a Samsung TV, chances are that you have never heard of TV Plus. However, among Samsung TV owners, the service has become a bit of a sleeper hit: "We stream billions of minutes every month," revealed Samsung Electronics SVP Sang Kim during a recent conversation with Protocol. TV Plus is one of the five most-used apps, and the second-most popular free video app, on Samsung smart TVs.
Much of that success is owed to the fact that TV Plus is integrated directly into the guide, with programming being presented in a linear fashion, much like old-fashioned TV networks are displayed in your typical cable box programming guide. The service is also prominently displayed on the home screen of compatible Samsung TVs, and there's a button on remote controls for easy access. With some models, all consumers have to do is turn on the TV, and TV Plus will start streaming immediately.
It's also completely free, which has helped to grow audiences; Kim said that engagement and viewing numbers more than doubled during the pandemic. "It surprised us how successful it has been," he said.
The success of TV Plus is especially striking when compared to Samsung's earlier endeavors. Back in 2014, the company embarked on an ambitious strategy to launch a family of services under the "Milk" brand, including Milk Music and Milk Video. However, both failed to gain enough traction to stick around; Samsung shuttered the video service in late 2015, and then pulled the plug on Milk Music in 2016.
Following that widely publicized failure, TV Plus launched under the radar as a bit of an experiment. The company first launched TV Plus as a video rental service in the U.S. in 2016, while at the same time experimenting with ad-supported videos in its homeland of South Korea. "After seeing the data about a year into it, we clearly saw that there's a lot more scalable opportunity within the AVOD space," Kim said, using the industry shorthand for ad-supported video service.
So Samsung changed the model in the U.S. "It just exploded after that," Kim said.
Samsung is not alone with its success in the ad-supported video space. Linear streaming services like TV Plus, Pluto and Xumo have become massive success stories, which in turn has driven a growing number of programmers to jump on the bandwagon.
A few years ago, these linear streaming services still largely featured unknown and online-only video brands. These days, Samsung streams programming from CBS, Bloomberg, MTV, Fox and Nick among others on TV Plus. In addition, Samsung also began to curate its own channels, including a "Kitchen Nightmares" channel featuring Gordon Ramsay.
Samsung has also begun to increase geographic distribution, with TV Plus now being available in 10 countries. The company has plans to launch in additional markets in the coming months. Kim declined to comment on revenue numbers, but said that "it's one of the key strategic drivers for the company."
The fact that TV Plus is now making the jump from TVs to phones underlines how big of a deal the service for the company is. Samsung has long operated extremely siloed, with little overlap between the phone and the TV business. Insiders have also described product development as entirely dictated by hardware marketing cycles. Every year's newest phone or TV needed to ship with a new lineup of apps, even if that meant reinventing the wheel over and over again.
TV Plus seems to have succeeded in breaking that cycle. "It is shaping our thinking," Kim said, adding: "This is here to stay and grow, I think, in a phenomenal way."
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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.