Comcast-owned Xumo took the industry by surprise in October with the announcement that this free linear streaming service now had 24 million monthly average users (MAU) in the U.S., up from 12.5 million in January. This puts Xumo close to the total that ViacomCBS reported in the third quarter for its own linear-streaming leader, Pluto TV, with 28.4 million U.S. MAUs.
That stat caught VIP’s attention. All data VIP has seen from survey research, where respondents are asked if they have watched Xumo, has firmly held Xumo at between 2% and 3% across 2020. In other words, market research has not picked up the additional 13.5 million users who began using Xumo monthly between Q1 and Q3.
Contacted by VIP, reps for Xumo and Comcast explained that the MAU growth was a combination of several factors, namely integration within Comcast Xfinity and Flex boxes as well as increased use in their white-label services such as LG Channels and use of the Xumo service itself. This explains how the consumer data can be at odds with the reported MAU, as often consumers may be watching Xumo content without directly using the platform.
This would be easy to ascertain were MAUs and general online audiences not shrouded in mystery. Unlike TV, where Nielsen’s measurement is standard across all networks, there is no agreed industry gauge for viewers. Few companies willingly divulge the measurement for their numbers, and when they do, it is often with questionable metrics (see Twitter’s 3 seconds of watching equates a viewer in the 2016 presidential debates, or Netflix’s 2 minutes of watching a movie reported as a view).
It’s VIP’s suspicion that free services are following the example of SVODs and choosing the most generous terms to define their MAUs, in order to appear as attractive and successful as possible to investors and advertisers. It is impossible to tell how many monthly users are daily diehards, watch a couple of times a week or just have it on every once in a while. The services know, they just don’t want the markets to know.
This is disingenuous. For a sector that’s hoping to capture ad dollars from linear TV, working with advertisers would be a good first step. If the majority of views come from occasional viewers, so what? Success would see these viewers converting to more dedicated viewers over time, and given we live in a world of ever-increasing viewing options, quite frankly it would be realistic to assume that most viewers of these services aren’t gobbling 40 hours a week.
One way to dissolve the current industry opacity would be for one of the leading companies in this space to seize the bull by its horns and publish an MAU breakdown by user frequency, forcing others to meet this as advertisers presumably reward the honest approach. The other option would be for representatives from the major ad-supported services to meet and form a council that agrees on an industry standard and begins publishing MAUs based on this.
In fairness, Fox’s Tubi service took a stab at this during its Q3 earnings call. While the company reports a global MAU and doesn’t split out U.S. users, CEO Lachlan Murdoch was asked by investors if he could provide a more tangible number. Murdoch shared that Tubi had 220 million total viewed hours in September, laying down the gauntlet for all other streamers for the next quarter’s results.
The fact that investors are now asking for more clarity means free streamers should adapt their MAUs to provide more information. Unlike television, which has been forced to innovate while kicking and screaming, the hope will be that the new wave of streamers meets the challenge head-on and gives a welcome shot of clarity to measurement. Until then, reports like Xumo’s massive user increase will continue to be met with a degree of skepticism.