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Main article: Video streaming services

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 108

Plex’s secret weapon: cross-media integrations

00:10 | 8 January

Plex’s expansion beyond a home media organizer to becoming a centralized platform for all your media, gives the company a distinct advantage. By tying all media together under one roof — streaming music, podcasts, web shows and video of all sorts — Plex is able to add interesting and unique features around personalization and recommendations.

We’re only beginning to see some of the results of these sorts of integrations now.

To start, Plex today is leveraging its TIDAL music partnership to highlight which songs appear in a TV show, episode or movie they’re watching. Currently, this works for library content only, but Plex told TechCrunch at CES this week that the feature soon will work for AVOD [ad-supported video on demand] content as well shows and movies recorded to their cloud DVR via a digital antenna.

In the months ahead, Plex will begin to roll out more cross-media integrations, it says.

 


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Qualcomm launches the XR2 platform for 5G-connected AR and VR devices

22:00 | 5 December

At its Snapdragon Boondoggle Summit in sunny Maui, Hawaii, Qualcomm today announced the launch of its XR2 platform, which it describes as the “world’s first 5G-supported extended reality (XR) platform.” The company’s older XR1 platform, which already powers a number of VR and AR devices, will remain in the market and is now branded as Qualcomm’s XR platform for mainstream users, while XR2 is meant to show off “next-level features for never before experiences.”

XR2 brings together the company’s 5G modem and AI advances to, for example, support up to seven cameras for pass-through HoloLens-style mixed reality and smoother standalone VR experiences. Using this setup, the XR2 features 26-point skeletal hand tracking and, of course, accurate environmental mapping.

The XR2 supports display panels with a 3K by 3K resolution at 90 frames per second and supports up to 8K 360-degree videos at 60 frames per second, all using custom silicon to keep the latency of these panels very low.

While I think the value of AR/VR still remains somewhat debatable, Qualcomm believes that AR and VR had a good 2019 and started breaking out of the consumer gaming space. “I think when the hype started back in 2014/15, it was a lot about these consumer gaming experiences, but we see more and more enterprise applications coming to market. […] I think 2019 was a key year where we saw this transformation take place, with many, many proof points in both consumer and in enterprise,” said Hugo Swart, the company’s VP and Head of XR.

For the longest time now, we’ve heard how important 5G will be for this market, because it will allow you to stream high-quality video at the kind of low latencies that make AR/VR immersive. “5G is going to be crucial for XR. We’ve spoken about this in the past, that XRS video is the killer use case for 5G,” said Hiren Bhinde, director of product Management at Qualcomm. “Next year […], given that this is the world’s first 5G access platform, we are excited to see how different content developers, as well as different video streaming services with high-resolution videos, may be able to provide their high-bandwidth content on devices built on XR2.”

 


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Disney+ adds ‘Continue Watching’ feature

19:46 | 26 November

The launch of Disney+ has been successful in terms of sign-ups and adoption, but the user experience wasn’t quite up to par with what you get from other streaming services out the gate. Most noticeable was the lack of an easy way to pick up streaming where you left off – but that changes with a new “Continue Watching” section being added to the app’s homepage across all platforms where Disney+ is available as of today.

It should show up automatically as a new fourth row, under the “Originals” section. It behaves just as you’d expect, giving you a list of in-progress movies and shows that you’re watching, with a progress bar and the amount of time remaining. Tapping any of the images will jump right back into that content at the place where you left off, and the resume feature works across your logged in devices.

Turns out that this feature was supposed to be live at launch but was removed temporarily prior to the service going live so that the service’s engineers could focus on making sure other elements worked as intended for consumers. Disney+ still had its share of launch issues, including temporary inaccessibility due to overwhelming volume.

 


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China Roundup: Tencent’s NBA test, TikTok parent deepens education push

16:30 | 20 October

Welcome to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of events that happened at major Chinese tech companies and what they mean to tech founders and executives around the world.

The talk about U.S.-China relationships over the past two weeks has centered heavily on the NBA controversy, which has put the interest of some of China’s largest tech firms at stake. Last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong protests in his since-deleted tweet, angering China’s NBA fans and prompting a raft of local tech companies to sever ties with the league. But some businesses seem to be back on track.

Tencent, which is famous for a slew of internet products, including WeChat and its Netflix-like video service, has been NBA’s exclusive streaming partner since 2009 and recently renewed the deal through the 2024-25 season. As many as 490 million fans in China watched NBA programming through Tencent in just one season this year, the pair claims.

The basketball games are clearly a driver of ad revenue and subscribers for Tencent amid fierce competition in China’s video streaming market, but following Morey’s statement, the company swiftly announced (in Chinese) it would suspend portions of its broadcast arrangements with the NBA. Popular smartphone brand Vivo and Starbucks’s local challenger Luckin also promised to pause collaboration with the NBA.

It was a tough call for businesses having to choose between economic interest and patriotism, and Tencent was tactful in its response, pledging only to “temporarily” halt the streaming of NBA “preseason games (China).” As public anger subsided over the week, Tencent resumed airing NBA preseason games on Monday. After all, the content partnership reportedly cost Tencent a heavy sum of $1.5 billion.

Entertainment giant turns to education

tiktok edutok

TikTok is probably the Chinese Internet service being most closely watched by the world at the moment. Its parent firm ByteDance, last reportedly valued at $75 billion, has ambitions beyond short videos.

This week, more details emerged on the upstart’s education endeavors through a WeChat post by Musical.ly founder Lulu Yang, whose short-video startup was acquired by ByteDance and subsequently merged with TikTok. Yang confirmed he was helping ByteDance to develop an education device in collaboration with phone maker Smartisan’s former hardware team, which ByteDance has absorbed. The product, which leverages ByteDance’s artificial intelligence capabilities, will be a “robotic learning companion” for K-12 students to use at home.

The news arrived in the same week that ByteDance’s flagship video app TikTok announced producing educational content for India, where it’s used by 200 million people every month. The move is designed to assuage local officials who have vehemently slammed TikTok for hosting illicit content, as my colleague Manish Singh pointed out.

Diving into education appears to be a sensible move for ByteDance to build relationships with local authorities, which can at times find its entertainment-focused content problematic. The multi-billion-dollar online education industry is also highly lucrative. ByteDance, with 1.5 billion daily users across TikTok, Douyin (TikTok for China), Toutiao news aggregator and other new media apps, is in a good position to monetize the enormous base by touting new services, whether they are educational content or mobile games.

Also worth your time

  • A total of 53 major video streaming services in China have introduced a “safe mode” for teenagers as of this week, state media reported (in Chinese). During the controls mode, underage users won’t be able to search for content, send real-time comments or private messages, upload or share videos, or reward live streaming hosts with virtual gifts. It’s part of China’s national effort to protect young people from consuming harmful digital content and internet addiction, which has also spawned age checks processes in Tencent games. 
  • Xiaohongshu, a fast-growing social commerce app in China, is back in Android app stores nearly three months after it was banned by the government for undisclosed reasons. Rumors had it that the service, which was reportedly valued at more than $2.5 billion last year, was used to spread pornography and fake reviews. It’s hardly the first tech company hit by media regulation, and it can probably learn a thing or two from ByteDance, which has aggressively ramped up its content moderation force following a sequence of crackdowns by the government.
  • Meituan will partner with 1,000 vocational schools in the country to train as many as 100 million workers from the service industry over the next ten years, the Hong Kong-listed company announced (in Chinese) this week. Food delivery makes up the bulk of the on-demand services giant’s business but its footprint spans a wide range. The classes it provides to prepare workers for a digital era will also touch upon skincare, hair styling, manicure, plastic surgery, hospitality and parenting, a program highlighting the extensive reach of technology into Chinese people’s every life.
  • Chinese workers turn out to be big advocates for the application of AI. According to a survey by Oracle and research firm Future Workplace, workers in India (60 percent) and China (56 percent) are the most excited about AI. Japan, where the labor force is shrinking, ranks surprisingly low (25 percent), and the U.S. has an equally mild reaction (22 percent) toward the technology.

 


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Get ready to see more looping videos on Spotify, as Canvas launches into beta

19:16 | 10 October

Spotify is opening up its Canvas feature to more artists, the company announced this morning, which means you’ll see a lot more of those looping videos on the app starting soon. The feature has been in limited testing before today with select artists. When available, you don’t just see the album artwork behind the player controls — you see a moving, visual experience that plays in a short loop.

So far, Canvas has had mixed reviewers from Spotify users. Some find the looping imagery distracting while others

seeing the album art. Some people
to like the feature. But others
with certain content and artists.

The challenge is in designing a video loop that works well. That means it shouldn’t be an attempt to try to lip sync to a part of a song. It shouldn’t include intense flashing graphics or text, nor should it distract people from being able to see the player controls and track information.

Screen Shot 2019 10 10 at 12.07.54 PM

Spotify also suggests trying to tell a full story in the loop rather than just drastically trimming a music video down to the time allotted (3- or 8-second clips). Other recommended Canvas experiences are those that help develop the artists’ persona across their profile and tracks, or those that are updated frequently. Billie Eilish, for example, uses the feature to share animated versions of fan art.

Since launching, Canvas has been seen by millions of users, Spotify says. But the company seems to acknowledge the impact varies, based on how the Canvas is designed. When it works, it can “significantly increase” track streams, shares, and artists page visits. But Spotify didn’t say what happens when the feature fails to engage fans.

However, based on social media discussions about the feature and how-to guides detailing how to turn the thing off, it would seem that some users choose to opt out of the experience entirely.

Today, Spotify says Canvas will no longer be limited to select artists, as it’s opening more broadly to artists in an expanded beta. With the beta, Spotify hopes artists will treat Canvas as a critical part of their release strategy, and will continue to use it across their catalog.

“It’s a way to get noticed and build a vision — and an excellent way to share more of who you are with your listeners, hopefully turning them into fans,” the company writes in an announcement. “The goal is for you to have richer ways to express yourself and to allow listeners to engage with you and your music even more deeply. We’re continuing to work on additional features, as well as more tools and metrics to help you better understand how your art is reaching your audience,” the company says.

It’s hard not to comment on the timing of this launch. At the end of September, Google announced that YouTube Music would not be preinstalled on new Android devices, taking the place of Google Play Music. With YouTube Music, streamers gain access to a visually immersive experience where they can watch the music videos, not just listen to the audio, if they prefer.

Spotify, however, has traditionally been a place to listen — not to watch. That’s not to say there aren’t music videos on Spotify, they’re just not well highlighted by the app nor a core part of the Spotify experience.

The company says it’s now sending artists their invites to join the beta. Those who haven’t received the invite can instead make a request to be added here.

 

 


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How Bongo, the ‘Netflix of Bangladesh’, won the local video streaming market with just $10M

22:48 | 2 October

Thousands of miles away from the U.S., where technology giants, cable networks, and studios are locked in an intense multi-billion dollar battle to court users to their video streaming services, a startup in Bangladesh has already won the local video streaming market.

And it did all of this in six years with just $10 million. And it’s also profitable.

Ahad Mohammad started Bongo in 2013. The on-demand video service began life as a channel on YouTube in 2014 before expanding as a standalone app to users a year later.

Of the 96 million people in Bangladesh who are online today, 75 million of them are subscribed to either Bongo’s YouTube channel or to its app, Mohammed said.

Bongo’s domination in Bangladesh is second to none in the nation. iFlix, which raised $50 million a few months ago to expand its presence in several Asian markets, and India’s Zee5 are among the players that Bongo competes with, though their market share remains tiny in comparison.

TechCrunch caught up with Mohammed to get an insight into the early days of building Bongo and what holds next for the “Netflix of Bangladesh” as it increasingly expands to international markets.


0

The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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Plex partners with Lionsgate to expand its ad-supported video library

19:09 | 18 September

Plex has added a new content partner for its soon-to-launch ad-supported video service. The company announced this morning its service will now also include movies from Lionsgate, which will join Plex’s existing partner Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, in helping to fill out the forthcoming video-on-demand library.

However, unlike with Warner Bros., whose videos will be limited to U.S. viewers, the deal with Lionsgate is for worldwide streaming. (There may be a few titles with geo-restrictions, Plex noted.)

“Lionsgate is one of the biggest names in the business and we know our millions of users will enjoy free access to their library of movies,” said Keith Valory, CEO of Plex, in a statement. “Plex caters to the most passionate and discerning media lovers all over the world, so it is important for us to be able to bring great content like this together in one beautiful app for all of our users across the globe.”

TechCrunch first reported on Plex’s plans to enter the ad-supported movies market back in January. The company described a strategy that is similar to Roku’s — that is, instead of just facilitating streaming through its platform, it will actually broker deals that bring a selection of free content directly to its users. It can then tap into the ad revenue that’s generated to boost its bottom line as Roku does with The Roku Channel.

Though Plex began as a media organizer, it has, in recent years, expanded to focus on becoming a one-stop-shop for all your media needs. This includes streaming and recording from live TV, streaming music by way of a TIDAL partnership, plus access to podcastsnews and web series.

Plex now has 20 million users, and while it doesn’t detail its subscriber numbers, it has achieved profitability.

That said, the one media organization challenge it hasn’t yet solved is helping users search for, discover, and track the shows and movies they want to watch outside of live TV or its ad-supported streams. Plex did once say it’s looking into paid subscriptions further down the road, as it’s a natural next step beyond the ad-supported streaming deals.

Plex says its video-on-demand library will launch later this year.

 


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Netflix tests human-driven curation with launch of ‘Collections’

20:59 | 23 August

Netflix is testing a new way to help users find TV shows and movies they’ll want to watch with the launch of a “Collections” feature, currently in testing on iOS devices. While Netflix today already offers thematic suggestions of things to watch, based on your Netflix viewing history, Collections aren’t only based on themes. According to Netflix, the titles are curated by experts on the company’s creative teams, and are organized into these collections based on similar factors — like genre, tone, storyline, and character traits.

This human-led curation is different from how Netflix typically makes its recommendations. The streaming service is famous for its advanced categorization system, where there are hundreds of niche categories that go beyond broad groupings like “Action,” “Drama,” “Sci-Fi,” “Romance,” and the like. These narrower subcategories allow the streamer to make more specific and targeted recommendations.

Netflix also tracks titles that are popular and trending across its service, so you can check in on what everyone else is watching, as well.

The new Collections feature was first spotted by Jeff Higgins, who tweeted some screenshots of the addition.

If you’ve been opted in to the test, the Collections option is available at the top right of the app’s homepage — where My List would have been otherwise.

The suggestions are organized into editorial groups, with titles like “Let’s Keep It Light,” “Dark & Devious TV Shows,” “Prizewinning Movie Picks,” “Watch, Gasp, Repeat,” “Women Who Rule the Screen,” and many more.

You can follow the Collection from the main screen, or you can tap into it to further explore its titles.

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If you tap a collection that interests you, it smoothly expands to the show the thumbnails of the suggested titles below a header that explains what the collection is about. You can choose to follow the suggestion from here too, which presumably ties into Netflix’s notification system.

Collections are also found on the app’s Home page, for those who have access to the new feature.

“We’re always looking for new ways to connect our fans with titles we think they’ll love, so we’re testing out a new way to curate Netflix titles into collections on the Netflix iOS app,” a Netflix spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. “Our tests generally vary in how long they run for and in which countries they run in, and they may or may not become permanent features on our service.”

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This isn’t the first time Netflix has toyed with organizing content suggestions into Collections. The company’s DVD service (yes, it still exists), had rolled out a similar Collections feature in its own mobile app.

This test comes at a time when Netflix is working on features to better retain existing subscribers amid increased competition, including that from upcoming rivals like Disney+ and Apple TV+, among others. On this front, it also recently launched a feature allowing users to track new and soon-to-launch releases, as a means of keeping subscribers anticipating what comes next.

Netflix said Collections is only available on iOS. As a test, it won’t show to all users.

 


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Hulu and Amazon Prime Video chip away at Netflix’s dominance

22:39 | 22 August

Netflix is still the No. 1 subscription streaming service in the U.S., according to a new report from eMarketer, but rivals including Amazon Prime Video and Hulu are starting to cut into its market share. The analyst firm forecasts 182.5 million U.S. consumers will subscribe to over-the-top streaming services this year, or 53.3% of the population. Netflix is still the too choice here, with 158.8 million viewers in 2019 and it is continuing to grow. However, its share of the U.S. over-the-top subscription market will decline even as its total subscriber numbers climb, the report said.

Though Netflix announced in Q2 the first drop in U.S. users in nearly a decade, eMarketer says Netflix will see strong growth throughout the rest of the year — up 7.6% over 2018. This will be driven by the new seasons of popular series like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things, as well as Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman.

But Netflix is no longer the only option for streaming video these days. Back in 2014, it had 90% of the market. In 2019, its share will have shrunk to 87%.

1 1

This decline in market share is attributed to the rise of rival services, like Hulu and Prime Video.

Hulu, for example, is estimated to reach 75.8 million U.S. viewers this year, or 41.5% of subscription service users. The number of viewers will also increase by 17.5% in 2019, but this is a drop from 2018’s big growth spurt of 49.6%

Prime Video, meanwhile will remain the second-largest subscription over-the-top video provider in the U.S. in 2019, the report says, with 96.5 million viewers. That’s up 8.8% over last year.

The firm estimates Prime Video will reach a third of the U.S. population by 2021.

2

Netflix market share dominance is about to face new threats as well, most notably from the Disney-Hulu-ESPN bundle, which is priced the same as a standard U.S. Netflix subscription.

“Netflix has faced years of strong competition for viewers, coming from streaming video platforms, pay-TV services, and even video games,” said eMarketer forecasting analyst Eric Haggstrom. “While there is no true ‘Netflix killer’ on the market, Disney’s upcoming bundle with Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ probably comes closest. Netflix’s answer has been to stick to what has made it the market leader—outspending the competition on both licensed and original content, offering customers a competitive price,” he added.

Disney isn’t the only one with a new streaming service in the works, though.

Apple TV+ is poised to launch later this year, and is said to be spending $6 billion on content — far more than the $1 billion that had been reported. It’s also said to be considering a competitive $9.99 per month price point.

NBCUniversal and AT&T WarnerMedia are also poised to enter the market, the latter with HBO Max. And following the CBS-Viacom merger, the combined company is looking to beef up its own platforms, CBS All Access and the ad-supported Pluto TV, with the newly acquired content.

“The market for streaming video has been driven by an explosion in high-end original content and low subscription costs relative to traditional pay TV,” Haggstrom noted. “A strong consumer appetite for new shows and movies has driven viewer growth for services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as the broader market.”

 


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