TV broadcaster Sinclair launches STIRR, a free streaming service with local news and sports

Local TV broadcasting company Sinclair Broadcast Group today announced the launch of a new streaming service called STIRR that aims to bring local TV news and other content to the growing number of cord cutters across the U.S. The company today owns over 190 TV stations, which it’s leveraging in order to create its own “skinny bundle.” However, unlike TV streaming services such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV, or YouTube TV, for example – STIRR will be free and ad-supported instead of a paid subscription.

The service will offer access to national news, sports, entertainment and digital-first channels and a video-on-demand library in addition to its local content, which serves as the anchor for the new service.

In a special channel called STIRR CITY (yes, all caps), the service will stream a curated, 24/7 program lineup based on where the viewer lives. This will include local news, local and regional sports, entertainment and city-focused lifestyle programming from the local Sinclair TV station in that city.

STIRR CITY joins other original channels developed for the service, including STIRR Movies (for some reason, no caps), STIRR Sports, and STIRR Life.

STIRR Sports and Life will offer locally focused programs, we’re told. For example, the Sports channel may show high school football, and the Life channel might show a local lifestyle show like “Seattle Refined.” When local content isn’t available, the channels will be fleshed out with content aggregated from other networks on STIRR.

STIRR Movies will also be aggregated content, but the company is exploring additional deals, we’re told.

At launch, there are over 20 national networks and digital-first stations available, but few are notable.

The list includes: BUZZR, Charge, Cheddar, Comet, CONtv, Dove Channel, DUST, FailArmy, Futurism, Gravitas, Mobcrush, MovieMix, NASA TV, Outdoor America, The Pet Collective, SOAR, Stadium, TBD, The T, and World Poker Tour.

The company says it plans to grow its selection to over 50 networks by the end of 2019.

It’s clear, however, that the network selection won’t be the draw here – it’s the local content.

Today, it’s still fairly difficult for cord cutters to access local programming. While consumers can use a digital antenna to capture over-the-air TV signals for free, it requires the installation of a not-very-aesthetically-pleasing antenna. (At least Amazon’s Fire TV Recast gives you the option of hiding the antenna in a back room so as not to junk up your entertainment center.)

But even with an antenna, signals can be hit-or-miss – some areas have poor reception, or are too far from the signal’s source for a good experience.

And while the new crop of live TV streaming services provide another means of accessing local channels, they are not free.

Plus, the live TV services include cloud DVRs which subscribers use to record programs then skip the ads. STIRR doesn’t have a recording option, which may make it attractive to advertisers.

“Despite the explosive growth of new national over-the-top (OTT) services, local TV station’s programming, especially local news, has remained some of the most popular and desired content to audiences and advertisers alike,” said Adam Ware, STIRR’s General Manager, in a statement. “By creating the STIRR CITY channel format, local TV stations can now extend their programming strength to OTT,” he added.

Ware also points out that STIRR will give advertisers a way to reach a different demographic who is no longer watching traditional TV.

“Local broadcast traditional skews older. Streaming skews younger,” he tells TechCrunch. “This brings the two together for the first time,” he says.

STIRR’s ad sales will be coordinated between Sinclair Digital, OTT Compulse and Sinclair’s local stations. And its ad revenue is shared with content partners. (The company hasn’t ruled out a premium version that eliminates ads, we understand, but has nothing like that at launch.)

Also of note, you don’t have to live in a particular city to tune into its local programming via STIRR. That’s good, too, because STIRR doesn’t have a presence in all major metros. But it will suggest your closest markets when you load the app.

One caveat about STIRR: while local programming is available, STIRR won’t stream the primetime shows that these networks carry – you’ll still need your antenna or a paid streaming service for that. (Or, if you’re like a growing number of TV viewers, you don’t watch much network TV these days, in favor of streaming shows on Netflix and Amazon.)

In time, STIRR’s selection of content could be enhanced by more regional sports channels, as it’s a top bidder for those being sold by Disney and Fox. That could make the service more compelling.

STIRR is available for free on the web, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku.

*We’ve run into some launch bugs when testing STIRR, and have gotten page load errors when trying to access the Channel Guide. Hopefully these will smooth out in time as traffic stabilizes.





New trailer reveals when Game of Thrones will return

Winter is coming this spring.

HBO is finally revealing when season 8 of Game of Thrones will begin. On Sunday, HBO released a new teaser for Games of Thrones that announced the first episode will air April 14. The season 8 teaser, called Crypts of Winterfell, was released on YouTube and played before the third season premiere of True Detective.

The teaser depicts Jon Snow, Sansa and Arya Stark walking through a crypt that includes three statutes bearing their likeness. TechCrunch won’t spoil what comes next. Watch below.

Fans of Games of Thrones have been waiting more than a year for the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin novels to return. Last January, HBO broke it to dedicated fans that Game of Thrones wouldn’t be returning until 2019.

The season seven finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf,” aired on August 27, 2017.

HBO didn’t provide any other details about season 8, including if episodes would be longer than 60 minutes. HBO has previously said the final season would have six episodes.

Tablo’s new DVR for cord cutters skips the commercials for you

Nuvyyo, the makers of the Tablo OTA DVR aimed at cord cutters who want to watch and record live TV, just gave their DVR a big upgrade. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company launched a redesigned DVR called the Tablo Quad, a four-tuner DVR that now offers the option for an internal SATA drive instead of only external USB drives. But the more exciting news is Tablo’s new ability to automatically skip the commercials when you play back a recording. There’s not even a button to press – the software does it for you.

The commercial-skipping feature is still in beta, and the company won’t get into its secret sauce too much here. We understand, however, that Tablo is licensing the technology from a partner, as opposed to using something it built itself in-house.

According to the company, it’s not using human labor to mark where shows end and commercials begin. Instead, the tech is described as a “cloud-based hybrid of digital signal processing algorithms and machine learning.”

To work, the shows are uploaded to the cloud, where the commercials are marked on the recording.

It’s able to figure out which portions of a program are commercials because of how they’re filmed – with quick cuts, for example. That’s why it works well on a show like “Big Bang Theory” but doesn’t work too well on your local news.

Still, the feature is notable because it’s automatic – you don’t have to worry with fast-forwarding or even pressing a commercial skip button, as on TiVo. It also works across all timeslots and shows, for the most part – not only those airing during primetime.

When the commercials are detected, Tablo will skip past them in the Tablo apps for Roku, Fire TV, Android TV and Apple TV, the company says.

However, the feature is only available to Tablo customers who pay for a subscription for their Tablo OTA DVR – including the Quad as well as older devices.

The Tablo Quad, like other Tablo DVRs, offers an option guide data subscription service, which provides the episode and series synopsis, cover art, and metadata for programs airing over the next two weeks. It also includes access to advanced DVR features like one-touch recording and out-of-home streaming through Tablo Connect, as well the new commercial-skipping feature.

The subscription is $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, depending on how you choose to pay. You can also opt for a one-time payment of $149.99 for lifetime service.

Tablo QUAD will be available in late Q1 2019 at an MSRP of $199.99.

The commercial-skipping open beta will launch in March for any subscription-enabled Tablo OTA DVR.

Court says Vizio’s secret smart TV tracking class-action settlement can move forward

A long-running class-action lawsuit filed after consumer electronics giant Vizio was caught spying on customer viewing habits can be settled, subject to a final approval, a court has ruled.

The group of Vizio customers alleged in its 2016-filed complaint that the company was covertly collecting viewing data from customers’ internet-connected smart TVs.

U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton said in a ruling on Friday that the settlement is preliminarily approved, subject to any final complaints or objections from Vizio. That will secure a settlement of $17 million for an estimated 16 million Vizio customers affected by the television tracking.

That should amount to a little over a dollar per affected customer, but will be drastically less after attorneys fees and expenses.

Vizio will also be compelled to make “certain business practice changes,” including displaying on-screen prompts and give the customer the ability to opt-out of data collection. Any historical viewing data collected to date must also be deleted, the proposed order says.

A spokesperson for Vizio did not immediately respond to a request for comment

The proposed settlement comes almost two years after the Federal Trade Commission took a shot at the company, fining the company a total of $2.2 million for its covert tracking.

According to the FTC, the company’s covert customer data collection was vast. Vizio collected a portion of the television display “on a second-by-second basis” to see if “matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content,” allowing the company to know exactly what consumers were watching at any given time.

Vizio captured “as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs,” according to the FTC’s initial complaint.

The company said that this was part of its “smart interactivity,” part of which was to suggest television and movie content based on what a customer has already watched.

But the FTC said that Vizio “turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others.” Not only that, this data was provided to data aggregators to build up profiles on unwitting consumers who were further targeted by trackers and advertisers.

And it did this without the user’s consent or knowledge. The FTC forced the company to stop tracking what its customers watch. Yet, as part of the FTC’s settlement, Vizio neither admitted nor denied the allegations.

A final decision on the class action suit will be held before the next hearing on May 31.

The Kardashian apps are dead

In this app-laden world, there is now a void. One so large, it will be difficult to fill. Perhaps, the Kardashians will reconsider.

The Kardashian sisters, specifically Kim Kardashian West, Khloé Kardashian and Kylie Jenner are shutting down their apps in 2019. Kendall Jenner stopped updating her app and website last year. The apps and accompanying websites were provided through Whalerock Industries.

“We’ve had an incredible experience connecting with all of you thorough our apps these past few years but have made the difficult decision to no longer continue updating in 2019. We truly hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much as we have, and we look forward to what’s ahead,” the statement from Kim Kardashian West said. Kourtney Kardashian issued a similar statement, adding a note to subscribers to follow her on Instagram.

kim kardashian app statement

It was a wild run for the Kardashian apps, at least in the beginning.

Kim Kardashian West made her debut in the iTunes App Store with “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” game, which may have grossed the star and development partner $200 million in annual revenue, according to some reports at the time.

In 2015, the whole family got involved. Kim Kardashian West, Khloé Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Kylie Jenner launched their own subscription apps in September 2015 — all of which shot up into the App Store’s top charts.

The apps, which charge customers $2.99 per month for a peek inside their lives, seemed poised to generate millions in annual gross revenue if growth rates and retention numbers could be sustained.

It appears that by 2018, the apps started tanking, and badly. According to App Annie, the apps don’t even make the overall ranking, which means they’re somewhere lower than #1,500.

Kim Kardashian app annie stat

If only there was another way to a follow their lives.

Nielsen: the second screen is booming as 45% often or always use devices while watching TV

Americans are regularly checking a second screen while watching TV, according to a new report from Nielsen which examined the media consumption habits of U.S. adults in the second quarter of 2018. Today, 28 percent of adults say they “sometimes” use a digital device, like a phone or tablet, when watching TV. A much larger 45 percent report they use a second screen “very often” or “always.”

The figures go to show how addicted U.S. consumers are to their smartphones – we don’t even put them down when tuning in to a favorite show or to watch a movie.

In fact, very few people – only 12 percent – reported they “never” use another device while watching TV.

Of course, there are other reasons why some people want to actively use their smartphone while watching television, beyond the need to scroll through Instagram during the commercial breaks.

Sometimes, people may want to actively engage with other fans or participate in an online conversation if they’re watching a TV program or other event live. For instance, they may want to tweet out their support for their team during a football game, or may want to react in real-time to a shocking turn of events on “Game of Thrones.”

Nielsen’s report noted this, as well. It said digital devices have actually impacted how we consume and interact with media today. That is, we’re using the second screen to augment the overall TV viewing experience, not detract from it.

In fact, most of the activities that take place on our devices while watching TV are related to the content.

For example, 71 percent said they use their device to look up something related to the TV content, while 41 percent said they text, email or message someone about the content. 35 percent said they shop for a product or service being advertised and 28 percent write or read social media posts about the content they’re viewing.

15 percent even use the device to direct them to a new program – meaning, they’ve tuned to different content after seeing something posted online.

Digital devices aren’t the only ways people simultaneous consume media. Surprisingly, a small handful of people listen to audio while watching TV, the report also found.

But this is a much smaller group, for obvious reasons – it can be difficult to process two different sources of information at the same time. Still, 6 percent said they often watch and listen to different content simultaneously – which is arguably an impressive, if very odd, skill to possess. But over half said they would never use TV and audio at the same time.

The report also looked at how people consume media – which hasn’t changed as much as you would think, despite the increased use of digital devices.

Instead, “prime time” is still a popular time of time for watching TV, including live and time-shifted programming as well as TV-connected devices like media players and game consoles.

In Q2 2018, U.S. adults spent 38 out of a possible 60 minutes on media consumption from 9 PM to 10 PM, including live and time-shifted TV, TV-connected devices, radio and digital devices (computer, smartphone, tablet).

9 PM was also the peak TV hour, with over half of consumers watching linear TV or interacting with TV connected devices like game consoles or streaming content through Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast or Fire TV.



Netflix tops other streamers with most Golden Globes nods, but Amazon beats it on TV

Netflix is having another good year when it comes to racking up the Golden Globe nominations. Last year, Netflix topped the list of the most-nominated networks alongside HBO with 12 nods, even if that didn’t translate to many wins for the streaming service. This time around, Netflix has scored eight nominations for its TV series and another five in the film category.

However, Netflix is not the most-nominated “TV” network. This year, that honor goes to FX Networks, which accumulated 10 nominations for its shows like “Atlanta,” “Pose” and “The Americans.”

FX is followed by HBO and Amazon Prime Video, each with nine nominations apiece.

HBO is usually further ahead because of its top vote-getter “Games of Thrones,” but the show’s hiatus meant it wasn’t eligible to compete this year. So, consider this a glimpse of how HBO will fare in the years ahead, when the “Game of Thrones” final season has wrapped.

Instead, HBO shows like “Barry” and “Sharp Objects” helped HBO score.

While Netflix led all streaming services by earning 13 total nominations across film and television, Amazon Prime Video was ahead on the TV side of things. It grabbed nominations for shows like “Homecoming,” featuring Julia Roberts; popular comedy “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel;” and the limited series “A Very English Scandal,” with Hugh Grant. (Perhaps Hollywood star power still sells on the small screen?)

Netflix, meanwhile received nods for Chuck Lorre’s comedy “The Kominsky Method,” starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, which is up for best comedy series. Netflix’s “Bodyguard” is also up for best drama, and actors from “Glow,” “Ozark” and “Seven Seconds,” were nominated, as well.

Like HBO, Netflix this year was missing the chance to compete with some of its top shows, like “Stranger Things” and “The Crown.” Plus, post-scandal, longtime favorite “House of Cards” didn’t get any nominations for its last season.

Netflix’s eight nominations put it ahead of Hulu, though, which only pulled in two nominations this year — both for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Though Hulu also invests in original content, it does so on a smaller scale than Netflix and Amazon, which in part accounts for its meager showing. (It could also do better with what it greenlights…”The Handmaid’s Tale” is arguably very good, but difficult to watch. And its other shows don’t have as big a following, except perhaps those from Stephen King.)

On the film side of things, Netflix’s Oscar hopeful “Roma” received three nominations, including best foreign language film, best director (Alfonso Cuarón) and best screenplay. The foreign language film “Girl” (Belgium) and “Dumplin'” also helped Netflix earn more shots this year.

(via Engadget, Deadline)

Hulu to top 23 million subscribers by year-end

Hulu will top 23 million subscribers by year-end, according to comments made by Hulu CEO Randy Freer speaking at Business Insider’s Ignition conference this morning. While Freer didn’t state the number outright, he said that the business will have added more subscribers in the second half of 2018 than it did in the first. Based on the numbers we already know, that would put Hulu somewhere in the 23+ to 24 million range by the start of 2019.

Hulu announced at CES in January 2018 its subscriber count had reached 17 million. It then updated that number at this year’s NewFronts presentation to 20 million. If Hulu is on track to add more subscribers in the second half of the year, then it will at least top 23 million.

“I think our numbers will be really impressive,” Freer said. “But, we need to get 30, 40, 50 million homes in a way that we can scale,” he added.

The exec also spoke of the potential for Hulu’s live TV business, offering another hint of how quickly that product was growing by way of a comparison with a competitor – AT&T’s DirecTV Now.

“We think the live TV market is robust,” Freer said. “DirecTV Now announced their number in the third quarter and we grew 10x of where DirecTV Now was. We were growing in October and November. We had our best third quarter, our best October, our best November,” he added.

DirecTV Now had added 49,000 customers in the third quarter. That means Hulu’s Live TV product alone had grown by nearly 500,000 subscribers in the quarter, which would account for a big chunk of Hulu’s overall subscriber growth of 3 million-plus.

The CEO didn’t talk about what’s in store for Hulu with the change in ownership, where Disney is becoming the majority shareholder by way of the 21st Century Fox acquisition. It will take a 60% share, leaving Comcast as a 30% owner and AT&T’s WarnerMedia with 10%. (But the latter is considering selling its stake, AT&T just told investors.)

However, he did offer some hints of what’s on Hulu’s roadmap, including an international expansion.

“We’re exploring all opportunities to expand the geography…we have support from ownership to drive that drive that opportunity,” Freer said.

Freer also noted that Hulu’s ad revenue, thanks its combination of live TV and on-demand, has grown by north of 50 percent over the last year, and is continuing to grow.

“The ads business is really starting to come into its own, and our ability to generate ARPU around ad subs has been terrific,” he said.

He also painted a picture of the flexibility a digital TV service like Hulu offers, suggesting that consumers may one day be able to pay for individual shows on ad-free basis, instead of having to subscribe to an ad-free tier. Or they could toggle on live TV to watch their favorite sports games, then turn it off when they ended – effectively describing a pay-per-view sports product.

“We know sports has a tendency to drive subscriptions…so we will certainly be evaluating sports as an opportunity,” Freer noted.

This ability to personalize your TV is one of the reasons Hulu believes the cable TV era is over, the CEO added.

“The aggregated linear cable network as a business…it had a great 20 year run. I think the next decade – it’s not going to be about aggregated linear TV networks or scheduled networks,” Freer said.

AT&T details its streaming service plans as it weighs a sale of its Hulu stake

AT&T may be ready to sell its stake in Hulu, the company revealed in an analyst presentation on Thursday. The company currently owns a 10 percent stake in the service by way of WarnerMedia, as a result of its Time Warner acquisition. But AT&T today is running its own streaming services, including live TV service DirecTV Now aimed at cord cutters, and a more lightweight WatchTV. It’s also preparing to launch yet another direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2019 that leverages its WarnerMedia properties.

The company offered a few more details about this new service during the presentation, noting that it will have three tiers of service.

The entry-level package will be focused on movies, followed by a premium service with original programming and “blockbuster movies.” The third service will include content from the first two tiers, then add an “extensive library of WarnerMedia and licensed content,” including classics, kids and family programming, comedy and other theatrical releases and niche content.

The service will launch into beta in Q4 2019, AT&T said, and will complement WarnerMedia’s existing business. It will also work across devices, and will expand over time to include third-party content through partnerships.

As for selling its stake in Hulu, the company is “looking for opportunities to monetize assets” that are not essential to its current strategies, explained AT&T CFO John Stephens. He said the company was looking at its “minority investments in things like Sky México or Hulu or a variety of other things.”

The mention of the Hulu sale was a part of a larger discussion about paying down $18 billion of AT&T’s $20 billion in debt by the end of next year, which involved raising up to $8 billion in cash by the sale of some assets. The Hulu stake could be worth up to $930 million, Variety notes.

Also of note was the company’s not-so-vague threat that WarnerMedia would not be renewing its licensing deals with rival streaming services when their rights expire.

Asked how the new direct-to-consumer effort will be able to compete with incumbents, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey responded that over the next 18 to 24 months, “we’re going to see a pretty substantial structural shift that’s going to occur…some of the incumbents that are in that space today should expect that their libraries are going to get a lot thinner,” he said.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent of their total viewing tonnage is sitting on a lot of that licensed content. So their pressure is they’ve got to make this pivot over the next 18 to 24 months to get people off of viewing the licensed content that maybe sits in our library or sits in a Disney/Fox library, and get it onto their own,” Stankey added.

The company believes that, over time, it will be able to bring in enough new subscribers to its streaming offers to offset the declines related to cord cutting, which is impacting its satellite TV company DirectTV. In Q3 2019, the company lost 359,000 net DirecTV subscribers as more consumers dropped pay TV in favor of streaming services, like Netflix.

Disney to invest in more original content for Hulu, expand service internationally

In addition to plans to launch its own Netflix rival, Disney+, next year, the company says it also plans to increase investment in its other streaming service, Hulu. Thanks its buyout of 21st Century Fox, Disney now own 60 percent of the TV streaming service, which it gives it “considerable say” in how Hulu is run, noted Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger on this week’s earnings call with investors. He said the plan now is to invest in more original content for Hulu and expand the service internationally.

Disney would also be open to acquiring more of a stake in Hulu, the CEO later said.

Disney sees the value in both Hulu’s IP and talent, particularly on the television and movies side, Iger told investors. And it plans to use the television production capabilities of the now combined company to “fuel Hulu with a lot more original programming,” he added. This, Disney believes, will help make Hulu more competitive in the marketplace.

“Given the success of Hulu so far in terms of subscriber growth and the relative brand strength and other things too like demographics, we think there’s an opportunity to increase investment in Hulu notably on the programming side,” Iger said.

Currently, Hulu has had only a handful of breakout original hits – most notably, the timely dystopian spectacle that was  “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But its originals output has paled in comparison with Netflix, which projected it would spend $8 billion on content this year, with plans to increase that in 2019. Hulu has spent considerably less – around $2.5 billion, per analyst estimates.

With Fox, however, Disney gains access to the Fox studio and FX, and more, which will help it fuel Hulu with more original content. Iger declined to say if that content would be exclusive to Hulu in the future, but did confirm the studios are part of Disney’s plans for Hulu.

Iger also spoke of other changes ahead for Hulu, including possible adjustments to Hulu’s pricing, and its plan to bring Hulu to more international markets.

“After the deal closes and after we have the 60 percent ownership, we’ll meet with the Hulu management team and the board, and discuss what the opportunities are in terms of both global growth and investing more in content. But that’s something that we have to do after the deal closes,” Iger added.

The acquisition is expected to close in 2019.

In a follow-up interview with CNBC, Iger also said that Disney would be interested in acquiring more shares of Hulu, if the opportunity arose.

“It is premature really except to say that if Comcast is interested in divesting, or if Time Warner or AT&T Time Warner is interested in divesting, we certainly would be interested in buying their stake. But with 60%, which is what we will own, we’ll have enough control to manage Hulu in a way that is consistent with – the strategy of the company is deploying,” he said.