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Time for a Reality Check Among TV’s Streaming Services

In the burgeoning world of subscription VOD, all ventures are not created equal.

That’s a notion easy to lose sight of in 2015 as one TV network after another pushes out an over-the-top extension that makes programming available without requiring consumers to pay for a multichannel subscription. The latest is Lifetime, which unveiled a new branded SVOD play Thursday that offers 30 original movies for $4 per month.

Lifetime Movie Club is bound to get lumped in with the growing roster of channels that have made similar moves, including HBO, Showtime, Nickelodeon and CBS (and many more coming). But that doesn’t really make sense.

They’re all similar in one key regard: They free up programming previously restricted to pay-TV subscribers. But what exactly they make available is where the one-size-fits-all definition of OTT starts to fall apart.

HBO Now, for example, is a truly disruptive offering, unshackling all of the content that once required paying a monthly fee on top of the basic-cable package cost. Its very existence calls into question the entire value of pay TV, which will undoubtedly lose some customers who won’t see the point to ponying up for the entire enchilada anymore.

But Lifetime Movie Club is an entirely different species than HBO Now or Showtime’s upcoming counterpart.

For starters, these titles will be one year removed from their linear runs, as opposed to the simultaneous scheduling of original programming on HBO and HBO Now. It’s not all that different than what Nickelodeon is doing with its own SVOD offshoot Noggin, which takes children’s content that has already played on linear TV.

There may be a whole new audience of cord-cutters who have never encountered Lifetime movies before in the 25-year history of this library, but will there be enough to fork over $4 a month for aging movies with minimal brand recognition? Doubtful.

Even if Lifetime had the greatest collection of movies in the world, there’s the sheer numbers to consider: $4 to access a rotating group of just 30 movies. Not a thrilling proposition when you consider the price of Netflix is double that amount — but for an exponentially bigger library.

It’s an interesting time to consider the value of this new offering just weeks after the cable channel premiered “A Deadly Adoption,” a movie featuring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig that satirized the very style of film with which Lifetime will populate its SVOD service. To be fair, Lifetime has done higher-end movies as well, but even the most generous assessment of even the best of its library has to consider these titles aren’t atop the hierarchy of cable content.

Let’s face it: Nobody who purchases a subscription to Lifetime Movie Club is going to think twice about the value of their pay-TV subscription. So what’s really going on here?

Like every TV programmer, Lifetime has to stick an oar into the OTT waters as the media landscape shifts underneath them. They must do something just short of cannibalistic to begin to move toward a future in which there’s a direct-to-consumer relationship that yields the kind of user data that give a sense of what consumers really want.

Lifetime Movie Club may not exist in a year or two, but it represents a beachhead from where the company can eventually pivot into something that may be a more compelling consumer proposition. There’s also an opportunity to squeeze some incremental value out of a library more likely to collect dust than revenue.

That’s quite a different game plan than what HBO is doing. But lumping all these OTT ventures is useful in one regard.

Because while HBO Now and Noggin may be totally different services, they can be put side by side with so many of their counterparts for the purpose of asking an important question. How many of these ventures can co-exist before cost-conscious consumers who flocked to OTT to avoid expensive traditional packages recoil upon discovering they’re paying a comparable amount when all these cheaper alternatives are cobbled together as a replacement?

That’s an even bigger dilemma for Lifetime et al. Because as every cable brands breaks from the bundle to go their own way, they will eventually find themselves in a zero-sum game to get consumers who are only going to spend so many dollars on so many SVOD offerings. And when that happens, consumer “Adoption” in this space could be “Deadly” indeed because not every brand will survive.

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