Wolk’s Week in Review: Disney likely to launch linear channels, The mood at NAB

Wolk's Week In Review

1. Disney Likely To Launch Linear Channels

So my eyes definitely lit up when I saw a report that Disney is going to launch linear channels on Disney+.

And let’s be clear: this is just a rumor from a publication that, while it does often break stories, also jumps the gun a lot of the time. Meaning it’s not a sure thing.

But for the sake of this column, let’s assume it is.

As I might have mentioned once or twice, linear channels make a whole lot of sense for the big subscription services for a wide variety of reasons that we will get into shortly. 

And that this is not new: Paramount+ and Peacock have had linear channels for a couple of years now, ditto Discovery+.

And that people at most all of the big streaming services have indicated to me that this is something that’s on their radar/roadmap as well.

So there’s that.

Why it matters

There are so many reasons that linear services make sense for subscription streamers that I am going to make one of those bulleted PowerPointy lists to lay it all out.

A. Discovery: First and foremost, linear channels solve the #1 consumer pain point around streaming: discovery.

As in, no one can ever find anything. 

Yes AI is supposed to solve that, but it’s busy curing cancer and making electric cars affordable, so in the interim TV needs to do something to help itself.

Because in the immortal words of Rav Josh, my hippie Hebrew School teacher back in the 70s, G-d only helps those who try to help themselves. (He would have wanted me to use that dash.)

And having a bunch of linear channels for all those hours of library content is going to make discovery a lot easier. Because right now people have zero idea what to expect from the categories most services use to categorize their library offerings. Terms like “Romance” or “Comedy” or even “LGBTQ” don’t have much meaning. It’s simply too wide a range.

But bring back descriptors like Old School Netflix used to have (“Dark Movies Starring Dark Haired Women”) and slap them on linear channels, and then viewers will know what they can expect there.

B. People Like Linear.  As we’ve learned from the success of linear on the FASTs, people really like linear channels. They especially like it for lean back viewing, when they just want something on to entertain them. It’s easy. It allows them to avoid having to make a choice every 22 minutes. If the show that comes on next sucks, it’s someone else’s fault. 

C. All The Subscription Services Are Selling Ads Now.  People watch longer when they watch linear channels. Which means they see more ads. Which means the streaming service makes more money. Money they desperately need to offset things like churn and falling CPMs.

D. Permission To Watch Something Other Than Originals.  The current viewing experience on streaming now goes something like this: you launch the app and are greeted with a bunch of originals and high profile movies on the home screen. You feel like you should probably watch one of them since that’s what you’re actually paying for. 

Go beyond that home screen and you’re like one of the Losties exploring the island, not really sure if you’re going to actually find anything, not really sure where you’re headed, if The Others are lurking, or what the Dharma Initiative was all about. Only the intrepid forge on. Everyone else comes scampering back to the home screen.

Linear channels, if there aren’t too many of them, help to tame that wilderness, creating order out of chaos while giving viewers a safe place to go when they want to venture beyond the home screen.

It also makes them aware that the streaming service has a whole bunch of series they were not aware of, which likely activates Bullet C above, where they wind up watching more TV and thus more ads.

E. Analysis Paralysis. It’s hard enough figuring out which original to watch, but if you’re spending an afternoon binging American Dad or Friends—especially if it’s a group activity—then a decision will need to be made every 22 minutes and that is both stressful and a hassle, not to mention a potential point of conflict. Linear makes it all go away faster than a handful of Xanax.

F. Spotifyization.  Nine years ago I wrote a book about the television industry’s transition to streaming and there was a chapter about the “Spotifyization” of television. I still can’t pronounce it all that smoothly, but the idea still makes sense. 

Spotify, in the early years, was all about letting you pick the songs you wanted to listen to when you wanted to listen to them. So when they first rolled out their curated “Daily Mix” playlists, they were sort of shocked at how popular they were. But it made sense. People didn’t want to have to choose a song every few minutes and got sick of their own playlists. “Daily Mix” felt like a personalized radio station, and now playlists are a major part of the Spotify experience.

We will see the same thing with TV too, once AI gets busy and can create personalized channels on the fly. Not so much “Alan’s Channel” but more taking certain genres that it knows you like and programming shows in a sequence that it knows you’ll like and will watch for a longer period of time. (See above re: ad revenue.) 

That’s still a few years off, but it’s coming.

I promise.

What you need to do about it

If you are Disney, and this is not true, it should be. Carpe diem.

If you are one of the other streaming services, and it is true, let this be a wake-up call and get on the stick about launching your own linear channels. Even if it is just a couple of single-IP experiments. 

Yes, all the haters will be trash talking you about how this is all a “return to cable.” But here’s the rub: that’s not a bad thing. 

People didn’t dislike cable TV. They just disliked the absurdly high prices, piss poor customer service and refusal to implement the sorts of simple interface upgrades (pause on one device and pick up on another) that every other media silo seemed capable of offering.

Years ago I used to describe the difference between the typical MVPD interface and the Netflix interface as being like the difference between Kmart and Nordstroms. (People knew what Kmart was back then.)

So wear your linear channels proudly.

You can also give up on the alphabet soup of acronyms and go back to just calling it “TV.” If you want, you can distinguish between free and not-free, ad-free and ad-supported. But it’s not like anyone sits down and says “I’m going to watch linear TV on a FAST service tonight. None of that subscription on-demand crap for me.”

This industry does such a good job of making our lives more complicated than they need to be and, well, life is generally tough enough.

Final Note: If it turns out the report about Disney is wrong, I fully intend to re-run this piece when someone else does actually go there.

You were warned.

2. The Mood At NAB

NAB was a little slower this year than other years—media, in case you haven’t been listening to Brother Shapīro, is going through some hard times. But there was still much going on, many advances in the tech behind how the whole ad-supported ecosystem comes together in particular and a chance to bond with old friends and make some new ones.

As for the topics of conversation, it was what you’d expect: is there money in FAST, what’s up with shoppable, how much should we let AI help with personalization?

But there was another potentially more troubling thread, often woven between the lines or muttered as a follow-up: why can’t those damn ad guys get their acts together and solve any of this crap? They’ve been prattling on about alternate currencies and ID resolution and better targeting for the past decade and yet absolutely nothing seems to have changed and now they’re all prancing around Miami like it’s pre-Covid boom times and we’re out here in the desert and actually getting things done.

Why it matters

The whole ad conundrum is part of the legacy media industry’s original sin, which is that all of the various players think that this is a zero sum game that they can win and so they refuse to all work together, even when something like the JIC is handed to them on a silver platter. They ignore the fact that their real enemies are Google and Facebook and Time Spent With Media That’s Not Television and snipe at each other like a pack of Republican Congressmen.

Or, as Gary Vaynerchuk put it, when surveying the scene in Miami, “This industry is obsessed with yesterday… and obsessed with tomorrow…[it] just sucks at today.”

And while he was talking about advertising, ad agencies in particular, the same is true about the ad tech part of the television industry. We need to figure these things out today, because if we don’t, there won’t be a tomorrow. (Which was, in fact, often the follow up to the griping.)

It’s not the ad tech players’ faults though. Nor is it their counterparts at the networks and the streaming services. It’s the C-suite, the people who are thinking about shareholders and how cool it would be if they could actually win it all. 

Not all of them mind you, but there are enough giant egos involved that it’s just about impossible to get them to act collectively. 

Everyone wants a title credit. 

But that sort of thinking can be fatal.

What you need to do about it

This is an easy one. If you are the ad side of the TV industry you need to put aside your petty differences and pull together to solve all of these eminently solvable ad-related problems or, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, you will all be pulled apart, chewed up and disposed of.

And that would not be a pretty sight.

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. He is the author of the best-selling industry primer, Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry. Wolk frequently speaks about changes in the television industry, both at conferences and to anyone who’ll listen.

Week in Review is an opinion column. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of StreamTV Insider.