Publishers have essentially had to become digital media companies. Most now distribute their content online, they frequently draw on social media to promote that content, and they are increasingly reliant on a variety of business models — each strongly bound to digital — in order to thrive.
With the growth of digital media, there has been considerable restructuring of the publishing industry, a long-term trend which has had far-reaching social and economic effects.
At Ostmodern, we are increasingly being approached by publishers who want to know how to make the most of opportunities in OTT.
Over two posts, we will discuss how publishers have been moving more and more into this area, particularly drawing on video media to reach their readers and audiences. The first post will point out the inroads publishers have been making. The second will outline what these activities mean, and what publishers can do to succeed in OTT.
TV in the media landscape
The reduction in traditional TV viewership and the rise of video-on-demand services are as widely recognised as the decline of print. There has been a shift from traditional TV to over-the-top services (OTT) — that is, the delivery of media content over the internet — which has resulted in a surge of choices that gives more control to today’s audiences. This has led to some important changes in TV and video.
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First, the concept of TV itself has evolved. How, and when, audiences watch content has altered significantly, as has what that content is and how it is delivered.
TV audiences too have changed. The BBC’s 2018 annual plan found that 43% of 12 to 15-year-olds use their mobile phones to watch TV. This age group, and the older millennial generation, are no longer confined to linear viewing or a single screen.
Anyone can binge-watch an entire series as soon as it comes out — as content distributors increasingly make whole series available. Viewers can find critically acclaimed original productions on non-traditional broadcasters such as YouTube. They can watch live sports on Facebook and Twitter.
Much of this amounts to a blending of media ecosystems, with a blurring of content production and distribution, and many tech companies in practice acting as broadcasters or media organisations.
Second, video has become a crucial part of the digital landscape. In early 2017, Mark Zuckerberg began using the term ‘video-first’, portraying it as a ‘megatrend’. Later that year, Facebook Watch was launched with promises of original series, news programmes, and live sports.
Other social media networks have been quick to react to this trend. The rise of social publishers (media companies that create content specifically for social media) such as Buzzfeed, NowThis, LADbible and UNILAD have reaped the benefits in terms of audience numbers.
Video appears to offer a great opportunity, and serve as a focal point, for media companies.
Print publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, GQ, and Wired, all have millions of subscribers on YouTube, and share multiple videos on social media every day — albeit not across all platforms.
Facebook Watch hasn’t been working as well as Zuckerberg expected. Some publishers have also been fleeing the social network after changes in the news feed algorithm favoured user content and deprioritised publishers’ content. Which leads us to the following question:
Where are publishers going with OTT?
Condé Nast, the owner of Wired, unveiled its plans to expand its OTT distribution with a dedicated channel for Wired, to be followed by channels for Bon Appétit and GQ in 2019.
The mass media company attributed the move to giving these publications a bigger creative canvas, as well as reaching users on platforms such as Roku and Apple TV. Wired’s channel will total 125 hours of content, including 40 hours of new original programming and repackaged videos from the brand’s YouTube channel and social media feeds.
Other publishers have also been busy in this area. In September 2016, People magazine and sister publication Entertainment Weekly (both owned by Meredith Corporation) launched the People/Entertainment Weekly Network — a free, ad-supported online video network carrying short and long-form programming — rebranding this as PeopleTV in 2017. At the time of the rebrand, the network revealed that the service had generated about 100 million views across platforms in 2017.
Refinery29 began as a mix between city guide and deals website, curating small fashion brands in New York City. It now presents itself as ‘the original next-generation women’s media company’, with a global audience of 550 million across all platforms.
Having seen much growth over the last few years, Refinery29 announced the creation of streaming service Channel29 as part of a decision to serve its target audience better — primarily young and progressive women — by expanding its video reach.
The launch, due in this quarter of 2018, will feature live and on-demand video available on smart TVs, connected-TV devices and the company’s current digital platforms. Similar to PeopleTV, it is a free-to-watch, ad-supported model, but will also allow shopping through an e-commerce portal. It has a lot of content to repackage from its YouTube series, but is also considering original series: from documentaries, to half-hour ‘dramedies’, to virtual-reality videos produced in partnership with Google.
Turner Sports, owner of the digital sports publication Bleacher Report, has started its own initiative. It announced the launch of the live sport streaming service B/R Live back in March of this year.
Matthew Hong, chief operating officer at Turner, explained this direct-to-consumer OTT service was a response to the changes in consumption habits of sports fans. He stressed the importance of creating engagement opportunities and the need to deliver personalised content across different devices, on demand.
One of B/R Live’s biggest advantages is that Turner holds the rights to UEFA Champions League and Europa League in the US, allowing it to make matches available over-the-top. Other major broadcasting contracts include the NBA and golf’s PGA Championship.
B/R Live stands out for offering both subscription and per-event options, also supporting the NBA’s recent micro-transaction experiment that allows fans to pay to watch only the fourth quarter of a game for $2. Eventually, the league will let people buy into any portion of the game.
B/R apparently reaches 250M+ people across all platforms every month, much of this thanks to its social footprint. On Twitter, their interactions top the next 20 top sports publishers combined.
Wildly popular animated series ‘Game of Zones’, ‘Small Ball’ and ‘Gridiron Heights’ have been vital in establishing B/R as a cultural voice in sports. Their short episodes are distributed on all their social media channels and main app, while their YouTube channel has been the home for original programming, including live-action series and long-form documentaries.
But some digital publications have been focused on video from the start, and their success has put them on even brighter paths.
Platforms for video
Vice launched solely as a print magazine focused on arts, culture and news in 1994. It became Vice Media in 2012, delivering young adult-focused digital media.
It has been seen as the embodiment of success in attracting a millennial audience with its: digital publication; web series; news division; film production studio; and record label.
There are plenty of other publications which have made this shift from print to digital, but Vice has differentiated itself with its emphasis on video.
In 2016, it launched a cable television network, Viceland, first in North America but now available all over the world. Viceland’s programming features documentary and reality series aimed at millennials, with original series and reruns of existing Vice web series.
With the 2016 launch, Vice made sure its audience found the channel easily by specifically directing them to links for the dedicated apps for Apple TV, mobile apps, iTunes and Roku — for those who didn’t have cable, or a TV, but watch series on their mobiles.
Earlier this year, Netflix picked up a Buzzfeed News production called ‘Follow This’, which accompanies Buzzfeed News reporters as they bring to life the site’s more in-depth stories.
The series’ format is made up of 15 minute episodes released weekly. With 17m subscribers, there is a mutual benefit for both Buzzfeed Video and Netflix to build on their audiences.
For digital brands such as Buzzfeed News, it may make sense to partner with Netflix, which is investing in shorter-form content to appeal primarily to viewers on mobile devices.
Exploring new formats
Publications are clearly still working out what to do with their video content, growing their video production teams every year, and exploring new formats.
They constantly have to keep up with digital consumption as well as (traditional and social) media trends to reach the highest number of people as possible, cutting back on platforms that aren’t working for them, and trying to anticipate changes in the market.
In the second part of this series on publishers and streaming we will delve more into what to make of these pronounced shifts to OTT.
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