Quibi comedy from Thomas Lennon will focus on tech entrepreneur who takes over a winery

Yet-to-launch streaming media startup Quibi has been keeping up slate announcement at a fever pace, and its latest is a show that sounds potentially relevant to TechCrunch’s audience. The series, which will be created, written, executive produced by and star Reno 911! alum Thomas Lennon, will follow a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who turns away from tech and tries to turn around a different kind of business – a failing California winery and vineyard.

Described by Quibi as a “workplace comedy,” the show will follow lead Lennon’s “rag-tag” team of winery employees, and apparently none of them are very good at this particular task.

Lennon’s track record indicates that this should be worth checking out at least, from his work on the excellent cop workplace comedy Reno 911! to his ongoing roles in Archer, Bob’s Burgers, and Drunk History, he has a strong track record of demonstrating great comedy chops, along with multiple supporting movie roles.

Meanwhile Quibi is really pouring the gas on its series announcements leading up to its target launch date of April 6, 2020. In the last couple of weeks alone, it’s announced a twist on a superhero series directed by Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, a Varsity Blues adaptation series, a WWE-created docuseries focused on women wrestlers and more.

Three great opportunities for startups in the entertainment space

With over-the-top (OTT) changing the way we consume entertainment across devices, most of the media attention is going to the big players trying to elbow their way into the streaming space with big new subscription services and original programming. Less discussed is the suite of technologies that pave the way for those services to connect to their audience and monetize the content.

Okay, it’s true video compression, identity management, analytics, front-end personalization and device-specific experience optimization are not the sexiest topics in the media world. But without those core features and functions, the OTT revolution would be dead in its tracks. And with the big providers focused on content development, user acquisition and business model optimization, development of those technologies is wide open for innovative startups.

As always, entrepreneurs should look for cracks and gaps in the existing processes to find better solutions. Right now, the biggest systemic pains in the emerging OTT ecosystem are around the complexity of the fragmented user experience – having to sign in and out of multiple systems to get to the content we want to watch – and around adapting old mass-audience advertising models to the new era of multi-device, multi-platform, personalized viewing.

Here are three areas where small, nimble startups could make a real contribution to the industry.

Enabling the Evolving Advertising Model

Currently the streaming market is divided between ad-supported services and premium-fee subscription models, but that hard division is unlikely to survive the next wave of market disruption. Premium services like Netflix will need to introduce a lower-fee ad-based tier to expand their audience and compete with lower-priced offerings like Disney+. More fundamentally, streamers will need additional sources of revenue once they have harvested all the low-hanging fruit in terms of subscriber base growth. And because streamers have access to so much user-specific data, the potential for personalized advertising is vast.

Online ad-tech platforms are already scrambling to retool their marketplaces to serve streamers. Is that the right way to look at the new OTT ecosystem, or does the way we sell, serve and measure ads for streaming services need to evolve to address audiences binge-watching longform content rather than snacking on short-form listicles, GIFs and short videos?

There’s also a blue sky opportunity to monitor and measure the performance of interactive ads that provide click-through transactions for viewers watching on tablets or handheld devices. Early data shows these ads can be extremely effective… or they can be so annoying and intrusive that they risk alienating viewers entirely. Do we trust the big companies to get this balance right? Sounds to me like this is a job for small, focused, innovative startups with a single-minded devotion to solving one facet of this problem for the industry.

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Reducing Platform Friction

One byproduct of the fragmentation of the old bundled cable viewing experience is the demise of the relatively simply program grid. What we found in the 00’s is that, even with 500+ channels available through some cable systems, you can make that simple and consumable for viewers if you present it intuitively and augment it with a little bit of intelligence.

Now that we’re entering a world which each content provider requires membership in its private OTT service to access original content plus its archive of movies and shows, it’s no longer so simple. In fact, there’s a lot of friction and overhead between the user and their shows.

We see a huge opportunity for startups to address this by creating a meta-layer on top of the fragmented streaming environment that abstracts away the complexity for viewers while preserving the underlying integrity of the individual services. This layer would act like a web browser, passing user access credentials seamlessly to each site to simplify sign in, standardizing the presentation of content and ads, and securely passing user data to each back end system.

The big players have invested specifically in making these platforms closed and proprietary to maximize their own competitive advantage. You can’t count on them to fix a situation that they perceive as being in their individual interests, even if it ends up hurting the industry and the ecosystem as a whole. But there’s a great opportunity for an outside innovator to come in and disrupt this model before it ossifies into a near-monopoly situation for a few carriers.

Telephone switchboard operators circa 1914. Photo courtesy Flickr and reynermedia.

Personalizing Content

The third big opportunity also addresses this big consumer pain point of complexity, specifically around having too many content choices and no road map for finding the programs we want to see. Once again, this is a problem we were able to solve in the old bunded cable era with smart collaborative filtering technologies, recommendations, and automation that allowed people to essentially build their own personalized content channels featuring stuff they already liked and might possibly like.

Fragmentation of content across closed services makes that more challenging. Luckily, AI capabilities have evolved as well, to the point that we don’t need to think only in terms of personalizing viewing options, but personalizing the entire viewing experience.

Again, business incentives dictate that each OTT service develop its own UX to differentiate itself from competitors, but those incentives work against the desires of viewers to have a simple way to find and view content that’s standard across whatever services they use. There’s a great opportunity for startups to bring forward all that we’ve learned about UX design, customization and personalization, plus a layer of AI to simplify search and discovery of content users prefer, to make the whole streaming world much simpler.

Open Innovation Starts with IP

These are just a few examples of areas where disruptive innovators can fix problems that the industry leaders can’t or won’t. We believe that an open model for innovation needs to be part of the conversation around the future of entertainment, and that conversation must include small insurgent companies as well as the giant incumbents. But for that model to work, we need to ensure that the IP rights of those companies are protected and respected.

If we can stick by those principles, we can create a more stable foundation for the post-cable world of TV entertainment, bring new solutions to market more quickly and more efficiently, and continue to delight audiences with great content rather than frustrating them with complexity and impossible choices.

Quibi is getting an action-thriller series starring Liam Hemsworth

Streaming media startup Quibi, co-founded by entertainment industry heavyweight Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, is adding more star power to its launch slate. The short-form video content startup will have an action-thriller series starring Liam Hemsworth, one of the many Hemsworths (the one who was in The Hunger Games, specifically).

This series doesn’t yet have a name, but Hemsworth will start as ‘Dodge Maynard’ (Dodge is a very common name), who undertakes a very different kind of indecent proposal where apparently he ends up becoming human prey for villains who probably end up being very rich people who want nothing more than to hunt ‘the most dangerous game,’ to draw conclusions from a popular fictional trope.

There’s strong creative talent attached behind the scenes, too, including Sopranos writer Nick Santora and frequent Mad Men episodes director Phil Abraham.

Quibi, which is set for a launch in April next year, will have lots of content from a laundry list of top creators, likely owing to Katzenberg’s considerable tinsel town influence. Shows already greenling include a murder mystery comedy from SNL’s Lorne Michaels, a documentary series from Tyra Banks, a Steven Spielberg horror show, plus projects from Guillermo Del Toro, Chrissy Teigen, Idris Elba and more.

The company has already signed up $100 million in ad revenue commitments, and $1 billion in total funding. It’s unique proposition compared to the rest of the streaming originals market is to create short content specifically meant to be consumed on mobile devices on the go. Pricing at launch will range from $4.99 to $7.99 per month, depending on whether users want some ads, or a totally ad-free experience.

Airbnb launches ‘Adventures’ for tourists seeking more thrills

Airbnb has debuted a new extension of its growing business in providing travel experiences in addition to temporary housing – it’s called Airbnb Adventures, and it’s effectively a collection of tours and trips lasting between three days and a week that go beyond the usual city walking tour.

One such trip, for example, is a wildlife excursion in Kenya that spans three days and centers around a walking trip with a promise to “encounter lions” as well as a campfire learning session, and “bush tea.” The cost is $500 per person, which includes five meals, drinks and two nights’ stay in a tent.

To source these ‘Adventures,’ Airbnb is working with local experts and tour companies, and doing so directly rather than working with larger tour providers that can be a one-to-many connection for sourcing like it does with some of its more vanilla Experiences. The direct route is probably necessary for these types of experiences, which have more implications in terms of liability and insurance. The company is also working with a third-party for verifying the certifications that are often required to provide these kinds of activities safely.

Airbnb is increasingly investing in ares that complement its core product of short-term peer-to-peer vacation housing rentals, and it debuted Experiences, of which Adventures is a part, in 2016. It’s also recently been reported that the company is exploring streaming media. It’s also expected to go public sometime this year, and recently claimed profitability in its operations.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

As Quibi reportedly seeks another $1 billion, Fiction Riot fills the programming slate for its rival service

Even as Quibi, the short form video platform from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, reportedly looks to raise another $1 billion, rival service Fiction Riot continues to steadily build out its pipeline of short form serials.

The Los Angeles-based company has already launched a beta version of its streaming service, Ficto, and yesterday announced a host of new shows that will appear on the app later this year.

Ficto is bringing to market adaptations of bestselling books and original productions which will be released with theatrical films and has plans in the pipeline for other forms of scripted and unscripted entertainment.

On the back end of its service, Fiction Riot is using blockchain-based tools to create a more transparent way to share revenue and manage payments among writers, artists and producers of new series, according to company founder and chief executive Mike Esola.

Meanwhile, Quibi is reportedly looking to raise another $1 billion to keep up the pace of spending big dollars for big names to draw new audiences to its service. The company is reportedly spending $5 million per hour of storytelling for some of its titles.

Both services are entering a highly competitive and increasingly fragmented entertainment landscape with many big studios building moats around their content in the form of exclusive subscription-based streaming services. Both Quibi and Ficto see short form as a way to break through with a new kind of storytelling built for mobile media first.

Alongside the series sourced from Ficto’s online “Million for Million campaign“, which will reward $1 million to the first producer of an episode that reaches 1 million unique views on the site.

“Within a week of publicizing our Million for Million campaign, we received over 400 submissions from professional and aspiring filmmakers with premium content,” said Mike Esola, Fiction Riot co-founder and chief executive. “From those, we accepted 20 outstanding series that rival anything we’ve seen across streaming services today, and are now scheduled to become available on Ficto in the coming months”

Through Ficto, Fiction Riot plans to premiere more than 50 series at launch and will release new shows weekly.

The slate of programming in development includes:

  • The Hating Game – A Sally Thorne bestseller that’s also being adapted into a film later this year starring Lucy Hale and Robbie Amell.
  • Language of Flowers – With over two million copies sold this book by Vanessa Diffenbaugh also has a film adaptation in the works that will star Nick Robinson and Kiersey Clemons.
  • Pure – A part teen fantasy in the tradition of Edward Scissorhands, the series by Julianna Baggott will be adapted into a live-action hybrid (but won’t star Johnny Depp or Winona Ryder).
  • The Killing Moon – A “Game of Thrones” for the young adult crowd N.K. Jemisin’s book is another feature in the Ficto slate. The company is currently interviewing showrunners for the series.
  • Legend – This internationally bestselling franchise turned its author, Marie Lu, into an overnight celebrity in China at the age of 26. The series from Ficto will concentrate on the first book in Lu’s trilogy.
  • Lion of Ireland – Combining historical events with magical realism this book from Morgan Llywelyn has sold over 40 million copies sold worldwide.  Michael Scott is simultaneously writing a pilot for linear television.
  • Riftwar Saga – One of the longest-running fantasy book franchises, these Raymond E. Feist novels have sold over 20 million copies. Atomic Blonde and 300 screenwriter Kurt Johnstad is adapting a series for Ficto which will focus on the first three books.

What’s impressive is that Fiction Riot is signing all of these deals without the over $1 billion Quibi is raising for its own app-based service, whose launch date continues to be something of a moving target.

“We’ve raised under $15 million,” says Esola of Fiction Riot’s financing.

In some cases, Esola said, it’s as easy as picking up shows from the cable companies that can no longer afford them. He points to the success of Netflix’s hit “You”, which the streaming service picked up from Lifetime.

“I call it the great migration of content,” Esola says.

For Fiction Riot the pitch is better revenue sharing and economics for the people involved in the productions and better tools for fan engagement that are native to mobile devices.

Things like click to purchase, push notifications for announcements of live streams or special features, and opportunities for greater interactivity for audiences with shows, are all options on mobile platforms that are much harder to pull off with linear television, or streaming, says Esola.

“It’s up to startups like us to address the grassroots movement,” for content creators, Esola says. “It will never happen from the dinosaurs. They’re never going to agree to it.”

Amazon Fire TV tops 34 million users, widening its lead over Roku

Amazon Fire TV’s lead over rival streaming platform Roku is widening. In January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Amazon said it had “well over” 30 million Fire TV users compared with Roku’s then 27 million active users. In roughly four months’ time, Fire TV has grown to over 34 million active users, according to new statements made by Amazon this week. Meanwhile, Roku grew its user base by 2 million in the first quarter of 2019 to reach 29.1 million active users, per its earnings report this month.

The new figures for Amazon Fire TV were shared yesterday by Fire TV GM and Global Head of Marketing, Growth & Engagement, Jen Prenner, at the Pay TV Show during a panel titled “The Battle for Your Living Room: Sticks, Boxes, and Smart TV Platforms.”

Amazon also claims that Fire TV has grown to become the No. 1 streaming media player platform in the U.S., U.K., Germany, India, and Japan, thanks to its strong sales momentum.

When Amazon first announced its user number at CES, there was some question as to how those figures were calculated. Roku typically defines its “active” user as someone who has streamed through its platform over the past 30 days. Amazon, at the time, had only spoken about users more generally, without characterizing them as “actives.”

However, yesterday’s comments referenced “active users,” Amazon says, not just a total number of users.

Roku dominated U.S. streaming player market share last year, but Fire TV has likely gained ground internationally. Today, the Fire TV ships worldwide to a wide range of countries, all of which can use the device to stream Prime Video content. Roku, meanwhile, ships to a couple dozen countries including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, and parts of Latin America. However, Roku last year had to stop sales in Mexico until it addressed issues involving access to pirated content, which were only resolved in October.

Fire TV also benefits from Amazon’s frequent and steep discounts on its hardware devices — including those over the holiday shopping period, where Fire TV Stick became a best seller. It’s been known to sell devices at cost or below, in an effort to gain market share. Plus, today’s consumers may be drawn to Fire TV because of its built-in access to Alexa — something that makes it one of the cheapest ways to get the popular voice assistant into the home.

Amazon is focused this year on expanding access to content and Alexa voice controls on Fire TV. On the content front, it recently came to an agreement with Google that allows it to finally bring YouTube to Fire TV, and following that, YouTube TV and YouTube Kids. It also has plans to support both Disney+ and Apple TV+ later this year, the company says.

 

Plex adds more TIDAL-powered features, including ‘Artist TV’ for playing music videos

Media center app Plex today is rolling out new features to expand upon its partnership with TIDAL, the streaming music service it began working with last November. Before, Plex subscribers could fill in the missing albums from artists in their library by way of TIDAL, but this option was only available within playlists. Now it’s available in users’ own music collection, too. In addition, a new feature called Artist TV allows you to play the artist’s video catalog along with other similar videos, with just a click.

The features — we think? — were announced today in this bizarre Plex blog post. But it’s unclear what exactly is going on there.

While Plex has always had a sort of casual, conversational tone to its various product announcements, this weird and confusing bit of fiction had its community members scratching their heads.

Here’s a sampling:

After he sweeps away our garlic-soaked crumbs, Hector declares that he is a huge fan of Steely Dan (the band, not William S. Burrough’s prop that, er, electrifies the masterful Naked Lunch).

And I say to him (YES WITH MY MOUTH FULL BECAUSE THIS POINT IS THAT IMPORTANT) “Sure, right, you’re a big Steely Dan fan. But does your library have ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Movies (Demo Version)’?

And he stares down at his fancy Italian leather shoes and you can see his face turn the slightest shade of primavera red, and being the kinda guy who doesn’t want to embarrass friends and waiters, I said, “Hey Nineteen, don’t feel Deacon blue.” Two quick song title references helped lighten the mood up a Peg. “I can show you how you can complete your collection in like 60 seconds.”

Somewhere in this more than 2,000-word (!!) story is a mention of the changes to Plex’s software.

Plex members weren’t thrilled about the lack of a tl;dr since they just wanted to know what was new and how it worked.

(Just to be clear, folks: users NEVER WANT A STORY. We want information. That goes for your app update text, too.)

While Plex’s announcement itself bombed, the actual updates are still worth noting.

For starters, a new “complete your collection” feature will allow a Plex Pass member who signed up for the discounted TIDAL subscription to fill out their music library by adding songs, albums or the artist’s entire library by way of TIDAL. These additions will then appear next your owned collection of music, making it more seamless to stream your favorites.

Of course, you could just stream directly from TIDAL, but Plex’s newer focus has been making itself a one-stop shop for all your media — not just the music and videos you already own.

Today, that means you can access your own music and video library, your subscription-based music collection, your podcasts, streaming TV (via your digital antenna), your DVR recordings, your photos, your personalized news and even web shows. (It still lacks a way to jump to your streaming subscriptions, similar to Amazon’s Prime Video channels or The Roku Channel, but this is something Plex said it has planned.)

The other new feature arriving today, “Artist TV,” also leverages TIDAL to offer music video streaming.

The company initially likened it to your own version of  MTV’s TRL. But it’s not about playing the most popular hits — so that’s not an apt comparison. Instead, Artist TV will kick off a stream of an artist’s videos when you click its button on an artist’s profile. It then intersperses these with videos from similar artists. In other words, it’s more like an “Artist Radio”-type of feature, but with video.

The features are rolling out today on Android mobile, Android TV, iOS and Apple TV with other platforms supported soon.

Netflix to open a production hub in New York and invest up to $100 million in the city

Start spreading the news. Netflix is coming to New York City in a big way.

The streaming media service has committed to invest up to $100 million to build a production hub and hire hundreds of new staffers in the Big Apple, according to a statement from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

Netflix’s new production hub will include an expanded Manhattan office and six sound stages in Brooklyn that could bring in hundreds of executive positions and thousands of production crew jobs to New York within the next five years, according to a statement from the Empire State Development Corp. 

“New York has created a film-friendly environment that’s home to some of the best creative and executive talent in the world, and we’re excited to provide a place for them at Netflix with our production hub,” said Jason Hariton, Director of Worldwide Studio Operations & Real Estate at Netflix, in a statement.

The new corporate offices Netflix has planned will occupy 100,000 square feet in Manhattan at 888 Broadway, housing 127 new executive content acquisition, development, production, legal, publicity and marketing positions. They’ll join the 32 employees Netflix currently has in New York.

Netflix already produces Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, She’s Gotta Have It, The Irishman, Someone Great, Private Life and Russian Doll in New York and has leased 161,000 square feet to build sound stages and support spaces in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg neighborhood.

To sweeten the pot for Netflix, the Empire State Development Corp. has offered $4 million in performance-based Excelsior Tax Credits over ten years, which the corporation says are tied to real job creation. To receive the incentive, Netflix must create 127 jobs by 2024 at its executive production office and retain those jobs for another five years.