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NewFronts Postmortem: Originals Come to Free Streaming

AVOD NewFronts

This week’s NewFronts saw a trend emerge among the free streaming services looking to battle ViacomCBS’ Pluto TV for the title of most watched free service. 

Unlike Pluto, which has a deep vault of library content with which to create branded channels — think channels such as “Mission: Impossible,” “CSI,” “Dora TV” and “Paramount Movie Channel” the likes of Fox’s Tubi, Amazon’s IMDb TV and Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Crackle all used their NewFront presentations to showcase how they’re diversifying from licensing content to making original content. 

This is not a new strategy. Crackle began producing originals with “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in 2012and its plans for 2021 include original documentaries and docuseries, with a new Chicken Soup for the Soul-branded AVOD and FAST service launching later in the year. 

What’s new is the number of free streaming services looking to differentiate themselves with originals. Lacking content vaults, there is only so much content available to be licensed, with the deeper-pocketed SVODs often sweeping up the most tantalizing options. 

Of the announced plans, IMDb TV’s is the most SVOD-esque, in the sense of scale and quality. While prolific TV producer Dick Wolf is no stranger to making shows for free distribution — the “Law & Order” and “Chicago” franchises on NBC and the “FBI” franchise on CBS — a producer of his caliber hasn’t been associated with free streaming before. Likewise for Judge Judy, who has a new courtroom show on Amazon’s free platform. 

IMDb TV’s strategy is one of high-quality content, especially for AVOD. This is something that Tubi, Crackle and Roku are also venturing into, in very different ways, in the battle to attract audiences. Tubi and Crackle are primarily focusing away from scripted, with both streamers announcing plans for documentaries and docuseries. Tubi also ireleasing a number of animated titles being made by Fox stablemate Bento Box, which produces “Bob’s Burgers. 

Roku has already dipped a toe into the originals waters, with TV show “Cypher” being released earlier this spring. It’s doubled down with the purchase of Quibi’s content library, which includes several bigname projects that will be premiering for the first time on Roku, including “Spielberg’s After Dark.  

It should be noted that this acquisition happened in January, with Roku not announcing any “new” content beyond rebranding the former Quibi shows as “Roku Originals.” 

Given that the Roku Channel has both VOD and FAST capabilities and Quibi’s content was set up to be 10- to 12-minute episodes, Roku will be missing an opportunity if it doesn’t create a “Roku Originals” FAST channel in addition to being available on-demand, as content this length is tailor-made for channel surfing on FAST. 

Pluto TV wasn’t at the NewFronts, suggesting its 2021 strategy will be the same as what has seen massive growth in the last two years, with there now being more than 49 million global monthly average users (Pluto TV no longer reports U.S. figures). That means more packaging of ViacomCBS brands with big brand appeal both on the show level — i.e., “NCIS” or “Hawaii Five-0” — and the Viacom-led strategy that drove those audience gains originally, such as channels “MTV” and “Nickelodeon. 

A&E Networks also held its first NewFronts presentation, focusing on its reach across platforms. While this mainly includes accessing A&E’s portfolio via pay-TV authenticated apps across connected TVs and devices, it’s worth noting that A&E has a growing FAST portfolio of channels available across FAST platforms: Lively Place, Thrills + Skills and Crime 360.  

This is another example of utilizing the vault in order to further monetize old content. NBCUniversal does this as well with Peacock but could do considerably more with what’s available to it. NBCU, too, had its first NewFront and didn’t discuss content, instead focusing on new advanced-advertising methods available to ad buyers. 

It’s apparent that in the battle to boost total viewing time — the monetizable viewing metric for ad-supported streaming — across free services that those without a deep vault are looking for new ways to distinguish themselves. At the moment, plans look moderate, with enough new shows to differentiate themselves though not the arms race for content seen in SVOD. Should that change, concern should be shown, but for now the move to originals looks sustainable for free AVOD.