Cable pioneer John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications, made a fortune from pay TV.
Now he’s betting big on internet-delivered TV, a la Netflix and Hulu — investing nearly $100 million in his two-and-a-half-year-old subscription streaming-video venture, CuriosityStream, which offers a bouquet of Discovery-like documentaries and nonfiction science, nature, history and technology programming.
CuriosityStream launched in March 2015 as a direct-to-consumer offering. But Hendricks, versed on the distribution power of cable TV, sees the big opportunity for CuriosityStream in getting bundled with other internet-video subscription providers.
Hendricks’ latest deal is with Dish Network’s Sling TV, which on Thursday will begin offering CuriosityStream to subscribers, priced at $6 per month (the same as the standalone HD version of the subscription VOD service). “It’s on-demand access to content without commercials. That’s the unstoppable future,” he said.
While in industry jargon the model has been dubbed “over the top,” Hendricks doesn’t like that terminology. CuriosityStream’s strategy is “how do we go ‘back through the middle,'” said Hendricks, who stepped down as chairman of Discovery Communications in 2014.
CuriosityStream now has 10 distribution agreements in place, which will put the SVOD service in front of more than 50 million subscribers, according to Hendricks. With the addition of Sling TV, it’s gone live with five so far, including Comcast’s Xfinity X1, Amazon Channels, Ellation’s VRV, and Layer 3 TV. (Hendricks declined to identify the five other partners.)
CuriosityStream offers more than 1,500 titles, including more than 600 original and exclusive documentaries. In 2018, Hendricks is shooting for the service to offer close to 2,600 titles, including 1,200 originals.
Current content on the service includes Emmy-winning documentary “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places” and David Attenborough’s “Light on Earth,” about bioluminescent animals (which cost $800,000 to produce, according to Hendricks). Original series include tech program “DIGITS,” “Deep Time History” and “Ancient Earth,” with new programs added each week.
Once CuriosityStream is widely distributed across those 10 partners (and potentially others), Hendricks plans to launch an aggressive advertising campaign. He estimates the company will begin spending $5 million to $10 million per month on marketing in 2018. CuriosityStream spent $1.25 million on TV spots over a three-month period in a test earlier this year (from February-April 2017) and that grew the number of unique visitors to its site fivefold, to 7.5 million unique visitors total. “With that response, we started looking in earnest at how to accelerate this,” Hendricks said.
For Sling TV’s part, the addition of CuriosityStream is aimed at helping it stand out from other “virtual” pay-TV services. Also Thursday, Sling TV launched add-on SVOD packages for the UP Faith & Family and Pantaya, a joint venture between Lionsgate and Hemisphere Media Group that features exclusive Spanish-language movies.
“What we believe is customers who are moving to an OTT model want a more customized, tailored offering,” said Ankit Bishnoi, Sling TV’s VP of content acquisition and strategy. “We’re not interested in just replicating the pay-TV model. It’s all about options, and the ability to add different kinds of genres.” Launched in January 2015, Sling TV had between 1.5 million and 1.7 million subscribers as of the third quarter of 2017, according to analyst estimates.
CuriosityStream currently has a bit over 50 employees; Hendricks said he launched the Discovery Channel with 23 employees in 1985. “I haven’t had this much fun since the early days of cable,” said Hendricks.
The company, Curiosity Project LLC, is based in Silver Spring, Md., literally across the street from Discovery’s HQ. Ex-Discovery execs now at CuriosityStream include chief programming officer Steve Burns and chief distribution officer Clint Stinchcomb; the company’s president and CEO is Elizabeth Hendricks North, John Hendricks’ daughter.
CuriosityStream is available across multiple devices, including Apple TV, Roku, iOS, Android, Xbox One, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and smart TVs from Sony, LG and Samsung. Each platform required about 3-4 months of development work, according to Hendricks, but he believes the investment in tech is essential: “Like Netflix, we want to control the strategic piece of technology that handles our interface,” he said.
As a standalone service, CuriosityStream is available in three packages: standard definition for $2.99 per month; standard HD for $5.99 per month; and 4K Ultra HD for $11.99 per month. Next year, Hendricks is looking at introducing a new annual subscription plan, potentially $19.99 per year, that would reduce churn and eliminate credit-card processing overhead.
To Hendricks, the fat multichannel bundle is headed to the dustbin of history — and Sling TV, Netflix, Hulu, CuriosityStream and other OTT services represent the next generation for television delivery.
“Consumers are constructing their own skinny bundles,” he said. “I gotta have movies, TV shows, the best of TV on demand — and then what CuriosityStream is fulfilling is factual entertainment.”