New service Level News brings C-SPAN to streaming masses

The brains behind the streaming marketplace Suppose TV have launched a new streaming service of their own, one that aggregates live feeds from a handful of premium news and information providers.

The service, called Level News, launched late last year and offers nearly a dozen domestic and international news and information channels for $6 a month.

In an interview with Fierce Video earlier this month, Level News co-founder John Tantum said the idea for the service came after looking over data from Suppose TV users and other places that showed streaming consumers had an appetite for non-partisan, fact-based news content.

"Based on that data, we observed there were certain channels based around news that people were looking for on Suppose, and we see an opportunity to put those into a bundle," Tantum said.

The cornerstone of Level News is the C-SPAN multiplex, marking the first time a company with no nexus to a traditional cable or satellite product has offered live access to the channels over the Internet. (DirecTV Stream, whose parent company helps fund C-SPAN, has offered the channels for a while as part of its base package, which starts at $70 a month.)

"They [C-Span] recognize the opportunity and the need to expand beyond cable and satellite," Tantum said. "They observed the same trends that we all did — that cable and satellite TV subscribers are declining every quarter. And, as long as they're strictly tied to those distribution platforms, that's not good for their subscriber numbers, either."

C-SPAN Affiliate Relations Manager Rachel Katz agreed, noting that throughout much of the network's history, its revenue was closely linked to the cable and satellite industry that funded it.

"We do need to try new things," Katz said. "For a long time, 100% of our revenue was subscriber base. And we peaked where cable peaked, and the numbers are down. We have to be forward-thinking, and get in front of the audience that still wants and needs C-SPAN and the coverage that we're doing and the journalism that we're doing."

Unique distribution deal

Tantum pitched Katz and the rest of C-SPAN on joining Level News at a time when the network was exploring ways to get its content and channels in front of more people, and streaming was an obvious direction to go in.

While other media brands have launched their own direct-to-consumer products  — Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock — to address viewers moving away from cable or satellite, C-SPAN still has to be mindful of its cable and satellite partners (cable executives comprise most of its executive leadership team and board of directors).

So launching a direct-to-consumer streaming service, while not off the table, wasn't exactly front of mind at C-SPAN. But partnering with a streaming service that wants to aggregate live news content was something they were willing to consider. Katz said Tantum made an aggressive pitch to get C-SPAN's networks on his service, and that aggressiveness played a big role in convincing C-SPAN to come on board.

"We were excited about his idea," Katz said during a phone call last week. "He was pushing to get C-SPAN, he really wanted our networks on his line-up. I'm usually the one having to pitch people to carry C-SPAN; it was refreshing to see someone pitching us."

While specific terms of the deal were not disclosed, Katz said the distribution agreement with Level News is unique, in that it's different from the type of deal C-SPAN normally does with cable and satellite providers. One reason: C-SPAN doesn't view Level News in the same realm as a streaming cable replacement service like YouTube TV or Hulu with Live TV. Instead, the network sees it as more of a news aggregation service, one whose primary content just happens to be video-based, and the licensing deal was structured around this idea.

The deal opens the door for other content aggregators to also bring C-SPAN to their audiences, which could bring greater exposure to the network and help it tap into additional sources of revenue at a time when cable and satellite subscriptions continue to decline.

"We're very happy working with John and getting this distribution agreement together, and we obviously hope it's successful and there are more ways for people to access C-SPAN and our content," Katz said.

International news a focus, local not so much

For Tantum, bringing on the C-SPAN channels was just the start: The service also brought Bloomberg News, Nexstar's NewsNation, and Dan Abrams' Law & Crime Network on board, and distributes several international news channels, including France 24 and NHK News.

Tantum noted that some of the feeds currently found on Level News are available to access for free on a number of other platforms, including YouTube. But he said Level News still has several unique offerings, including a watch-back feature that allows viewers to play on-demand versions of news video that aired over the last 72 hours and that works across any device where Level News is offered.

What Level News likely won't provide in the future is access to local news broadcasts; instead, Tantum said the company is more interested in getting deals made with international news channels, most of which aren't offered on traditional cable or satellite and can't easily be found in one place on streaming. Those deals are also typically easier to make, because they don't have the same content or licensing restrictions as domestic news channels, he said.

Tantum also isn't interested in chasing after free, ad-supported news content, nor does he think there's much point in trying to get a deal to bring CNN, Fox News or MSNBC on the platform.

"We are trying to offer a news programming with a balanced perspective, so we have purposely steered clear of some of the more opinionated or purely opinionated or other news channels," Tantum said. "We're trying to give a balanced set of news channels and more information-oriented than opinion-oriented."

When asked if Suppose TV's data could help push the company to build out similar news apps, Tantum said Level News — which is run separately from Suppose TV — is the primary focus for now.

"Sports is another kind of obvious area, but getting into sports if very difficult and takes huge amounts of capital," Tantum said. "We see news as being an opportunity in ways that we don't see the same opportunity right now in other categories. And, as I spend more time watching the channels we have, we've been surprised at the quality of news on the platform. They're well-produced, they're equivalent to what you'd find from a cable news channel."

Level News is available across all popular devices, including Apple and Android phones and tablets, on Android TV (Google TV), Amazon Fire TV and Roku.