Can a Niche Streaming Service Survive the Streaming Wars?

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

Can a Niche Streaming Service Survive the Streaming Wars?

Do niche services have a role to play in the streaming wars, or are they a musket in a battle of machine guns?

Heavyweight streaming services like Netflix, Peacock and Amazon are fighting for supremacy with broad, everything-for-everyone models.

Niche streaming services, by contrast, focus on a specific type of content for a specific audience. They pride themselves on being able to curate viewers' experiences with shows and movies they might not otherwise find. They often highlight their service's authenticity, efficiency and focus as competitive advantages. But as the behemoths spend big and increasingly expand their content libraries, is curation and community enough to survive?


BritBox chief executive Soumya Sriraman

"My board very laudingly says 'you guys have figured out how to get high-quality subscribers'," said Soumya Sriraman, chief executive of BritBox, a niche subscription service for British programming that launched in 2017 and recently surpassed 1 million subscribers. Sriraman told dot.LA that BritBox's focus has helped it to provide viewers a sense of community, which builds loyalty. She cites a high conversion rate of free-trial users to paying subscribers, and low cancellations.

"That's the goal – to bring in the right person and keep them," she said. "I don't want someone with a fleeting interest."

Sriraman suggested that offering that community feel is harder for the bigger, broad-serving platforms, and that being niche allows her team to better understand the interests of current and prospective customers.

"We can stay focused on learning more and more about them, and hence we'll be more efficient," she said.

L.A.-based Revry focuses on queer programming. The service is available for free or via an ad-free subscription tier. Viewers can also increasingly find it on third-party streaming services such as The Roku Channel. This range of distribution has helped Revry to reach over 250 million households and devices worldwide, according to chief executive Damian Pelliccione.

Pelliccione noted that his executive team includes two women of color and a Latino male, which he said underscores Revry's authenticity. He added that on his desk in Glendale sits a framed letter from a Saudi Arabian gay man who wrote to thank Revry for showing him that there are "other people out there like him."

"Consumers can sniff you out," Pelliccione said. "So when we're talking about Revry's impact and mission, it affects revenue."

That mission and community focus, he said, is itself a competitive advantage.

"Netflix has way more market share," he said, "but we call it the Netflix paradox: they're focused on a horizontal, not a vertical. We have the ability to take risks, to push boundaries, and to effectuate that diversity, inclusivity and authenticity."

Dekkoo, a subscription service founded in 2015 focused exclusively on content for gay men, sees its strength in controlling costs and appealing to a specific viewer.

"We're not really looking to have 100 million subscribers; our goal is to provide a service to a neglected audience," Dekkoo president and co-founder Brian Sokel told dot.LA. "Our size and scale means we have so little overhead that we're able to operate in this special universe and provide an add-on experience for the person who's a real connoisseur of gay cinema."

Sokel added that sticking to a subscription model rather than advertising helps his service remain true to its viewers. "(On advertising-based platforms), the content doesn't become the focus, the advertising does. We can just focus on the content," he said.

"There's not a chance that we'll go out of business," Sokel added, noting that Dekkoo has no debt and average monthly subscriber growth of 5-10% (which has increased of late because of COVID, he said). "We're going to be here."

L.A.-based Revry focuses on queer programming.

A Question of Costs

Not everyone buys the logic that focus, authenticity and efficiency will enable niche services to survive.

Most niche services have a limited customer base. This puts a ceiling on their potential revenues and ability to pay for content.

Media analyst Matthew Ball recently wrote that "It's increasingly clear that (niche is) not going to work."

"The cost of content doesn't change based on whether the buyer is large or small, profitable or unprofitable, niche or broad," Ball told dot.LA. He argues that serving customer demand for a given niche is ultimately "a question of who can spend more on titles."

This math favors the more cash-rich, larger services, which Ball said already "are going after...niches and will service them well." In his thread, he points out that anime is appearing in non-niche libraries more often. For instance, Crunchyroll, a niche service for anime, is sharing more of its content with the recently launched HBO Max (Crunchyroll and HBO Max share the same parent company, WarnerMedia.)

DC Universe, a streaming service devoted to the DC comics franchise (and also owned by WarnerMedia), has increasingly been shuttlingits content to HBO Max. The service declined a request for interview.

But Alden Budill, Crunchyroll's head of global partnerships and content strategy, told dot.LA that only a small percentage of Crunchyroll's content is available on HBO Max. She likened those titles to "gateway anime" likely to appeal to a broad audience, with the goal to attract new customers to the niche service.

"We see it as an opportunity to create visibility," she said.

That's a perspective shared by other niche services. Sriraman pointed out that BritBox benefits from having breakouts like "The Crown" on Netflix and "Downton Abbey" on Amazon, which serve as a kind of on-ramp for new consumers of British TV.

Ball, however, reached a different conclusion: "As Netflix pioneered + few once believed: (the) model is everything for everyone, always."

Dekkoo focuses on content for gay men

Niche vs the Everything Model

Brett Danaher, an economics professor at Chapman University who specializes in entertainment analytics, sees a case for both sides.

Generally, he says, the economics favor the everything-for-everyone model. The reason: bundling.

In an industry like entertainment, Danaher said – in which you might pay $5 to watch "The Irishman" but $10 to watch "Selling Sunset," and your friend would do the opposite – bundling those pieces of content together is the optimal business model. The more products in the bundle, and the more diverse those products are, the better, he added.

But there's an exception: "streaming fatigue."

Because Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ and other streaming titans are battling for content – each claiming some, but not all, of what viewers are looking for – a fan of a given niche may grow exasperated by the difficulty of actually finding it.

"A niche service could be the solution," Danaher said – provided three things are true.

First, he said, there must be enough demand for the content. If it's too niche, it'll be hard to generate enough revenue to cover the costs of acquiring and/or producing titles – which Sriraman said tend to grow over time.

Second, to serve as an antidote to streaming fatigue, consumers have to feel the service provides the "majority of the content within that particular niche," Danaher said. This doesn't mean the niche service must be the exclusive provider of that content, though.

Lastly, Danaher said that for a niche service to succeed, content creators must see value in having their material on the platform. Otherwise, they could decide to sign an exclusive deal with another, larger service, leaving the niche service with an insufficient catalog.

The Creator's Leverage

To that point, Budill of Crunchyroll said that anime-makers recognize how her service has attracted a legion of loyal fans, recently surpassing 3 million subscribers.

"If you are a creator seeking to reach a critical mass of authentic anime fans, we believe that we've demonstrated that we can be trusted," she said.

Sokel, too, said Dekkoo is "very valuable to a filmmaker: They can make a video and say, 'How does anyone find my film on Amazon? How much money do I have to spend to get people to find it?' Whereas they know that with Dekkoo, if they've created a film that would be of interest to gay men, there's no better platform for a specific audience that wants to see your film."

The big platforms' data-rich algorithms are meant to help viewers find content suited to their tastes, but Danaher notes they have shortcomings.

Alden Budill, Crunchyroll's head of global partnerships and content strategy.

"Each service only wants to write an algorithm to recommend to you content that is on their service, rather than actually the best piece of content. So the ability of algorithms to help you find the content within a niche is limited by how much content that service actually has within that niche," he said. Conversely, he continued, so long as a niche service meets those three conditions, "they are both able and incentivized to develop an algorithm to point you to the best piece of content within that niche for your preferences. And, you know it's right there for you to watch. This is the best argument I can come up with for niche services to survive."

Having support from a bigger corporation makes a difference, too. Sriraman points to BritBox's mutually beneficial relationship with its owners, BBC Studio and ITV, two of the biggest producers of British programming. Likewise, Crunchyroll's backing from WarnerMedia could strengthen its chances.

Another possibility for a niche streaming service is being acquired by a heavyweight hunting for content.

Pelliccione said Revry has already turned down two acquisition offers, information he says he's never shared with a publication.

Sokel said, "I think there's logic behind coming in and buying a company like ours. A major player could look at Dekkoo and say they serve this market, why not just acquire them? (Especially since we're) cash positive and no debt. But we don't chase that."

Given the many factors that will determine the fates of niche services as the streaming wars rage on, there appears to be just one obvious answer for now: we'll have to keep watching.

---

Sam Blake primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA

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How To Startup: Part 5 - Minimum Viable Product

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Minimum Viable Product
Image by Master1305/ Shutterstock

When thinking about tech giants like Facebook, Amazon or Google, it’s hard to imagine their weak and humble beginnings. When going from nothing to something, the founders of these companies all had similar startup journeys - they started with a minimum viable product or MVP. In the same way you can’t build a house without laying the foundation, you can’t create a successful product without building an MVP.

The Purpose of MVP

One of the biggest reasons startups fail is because founders design their initial product based on assumptions. As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to put an enormous amount of time, effort and money into a product the market may not even want.

Quibi - yes, that Quibi - is an excellent example of this. After spending upwards of $63 million, Quibi never quite found its footing among TikTok, YouTube and its many streaming competitors. The company never ran an MVP or any experimental public beta to test what kind of content and features resonated well with audiences, and simply built a product that nobody wanted or needed. After raising $1.75 billion in venture capital, the company shut down less than a year after its initial launch. This is why starting with an MVP is so important.

How To Build An MVP

By definition, a minimum viable product is a product with enough features to attract early-adopter customers and validate a product idea early in the development cycle. It allows founders to collect the maximum amount of user feedback with the least amount of effort. When building an MVP, you’ll want to keep the following things in mind:

- Answer the right question. It’s important to determine what your central hypothesis is. When Airbnb’s founders wanted to see if they had a viable idea, they didn’t rent out space or buy new beds. They simply tested the question “Will strangers pay to stay in my apartment?” by providing a free lodging experience in their living room with the promise of networking with like-minded people.

- Decide which metrics matter. Identify what will define the success of your product. Common MVP metrics include churn rate, customer acquisition cost, average revenue per user and lifetime value of a customer. However, the data collected should include both qualitative and quantitative insights about how your product is used and what customers actually think about it.

- Actively measure what you are testing. It is important to continuously test, measure and learn until the product is finalized.

- Build internally if possible. It’s easier to meet internal needs and challenges first. For example, the original Twitter prototype was designed for internal users at (the now closed) Odeo as a way to send messages to other employees and view them on a group level. After initial internal testing and positive feedback, Twitter launched publicly in 2006.

- Do things that don’t scale. In this early stage, you have nothing to lose. Create a great experience for initial users and cater to their needs. Put in the extra amount of effort while you continue to build confidence. Talk with every user and every customer, and do things that would never scale once the company gets bigger. For example, Yelp’s founder Jeremy Stoppelman famously went to every bar in San Francisco to pitch them on Yelp in the early days.

Not Great But Good Enough

When launching Zillow in 2006, we had to decide how good is good enough to launch. The first version of the product had Zestimates on 40 million homes with about a 12% margin of error. When launching, we knew that the Zestimates weren’t going to be entirely accurate and mainly just wanted to see how Americans would react to being able to publicly view valuations and information about homes.

We actually held up the Zillow launch by about two months to avoid angry and upset consumers. We spent this time building out an extra feature called My Estimate that allowed users to modify the estimates of their home with information Zillow didn’t have, such as for things like remodeling or significant changes to square footage. We were worried people might not be happy if the estimate was incorrect and they couldn’t do anything about it, which is why we held off. It was a difficult decision to push back the launch, but worth it in the long run. When striking this balance between our MVP and V1, we knew it didn’t have to be great but just good enough to entice users. Now, 15 years later, Zillow has upwards of 100 million homes with about a 3% margin of error, and the product is much more fully evolved.

Key Takeaway

The key takeaway here is that MVP allows organizations to start small, and slowly build up to the best version of their product. When starting Hotwire, we started by just selling airline tickets from a few carriers. Later we expanded to include more airlines, additional flight options, and eventually hotels, rental cars and cruises. But the early MVP was as stripped down as possible. See below for Hotwire’s beta site in 2000. About as bare-bones as it gets.

Image from HotwireAn MVP of Hotwire sold airline tickets from just a few carriers.Image from Hotwire

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'It's Almost Winter-Agnostic': At This Annual Gathering of Creators, Recession is on No One's Mind

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is an editorial intern for dot.la. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

Vidcon 2022
Photo by Kristin Snyder

The creator economy is the bedrock of this week’s VidCon convention, which is drawing creators, companies, investors and fans alike to Anaheim to discuss the rapidly growing realm of digital content and entertainment.

To discuss how investors, in particular, are viewing the booming creator landscape, Thursday’s “Betting Big on the Creator Economy” panel featured the likes of MaC Venture Capital partner Zhenni Liu, Investcorp managing director Anand Radhakrishnan, Team8 Fintech managing partner Yuval Tal and Paladin co-founder and CEO James Creech.

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Netflix Lays Off Another 300 People

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Netflix Lays Off Another 300 People
Photo by DCL "650" on Unsplash

Netflix has imposed its second round of layoffs in less than a month, cutting another 300 people from its staff.

“Today we sadly let go of around 300 employees,” a Netflix spokesperson confirmed to dot.LA. “While we continue to invest significantly in the business, we made these adjustments so that our costs are growing in line with our slower revenue growth.”

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