by Don Groves — 18 May 2020
If there is a silver lining to millions of Australians being in lockdown, it’s that in-home viewing levels are soaring for the free-to-air networks, Foxtel and streaming services.
Adding to the in-home entertainment options, distributors have been fast tracking the release of numerous films to online platforms and in some cases, such as Australian drama Hearts and Bones and Disney’s live-action adventure Artemis Fowl, going direct-to-digital while cinemas remain closed.
Australians have never had so many streaming services to choose from after the launches of shortform video app Quibi and cinema streaming services FanForce TV and Ritz At Home.
On May 25th Foxtel will launch Binge, its low-cost entertainment streaming service, a sibling to Kayo Sports, targeted at the 70% of the population which doesn’t subscribe to Foxtel or balk at its premium pricing. Binge will draw on content from an extended licensing deal between Foxtel and WarnerMedia which includes HBO Max Originals and Friends and The Big Bang Theory, which have been carried by Stan.
The long-term deal, which spans Warner Bros, HBO, HBO Max and WarnerMedia networks, means HBO Max, which launches in the US on May 27, won’t land on our shores for the foreseeable future.
Foxtel CEO Patrick Delany has said: “We think Australia is ready for a major new entertainment streaming service. Our new service is going to deliver something unique to Australians who want outstanding entertainment with a fresh new user experience that’s built on the same world-class streaming platform as Kayo.
“Clearly, the current circumstances are also fortuitous. Viewership on Foxtel is up 25% on this time last year so we know that a product carefully targeted at the 70% of Australians who don’t have Foxtel is going to have extra relevance as people settle in at home, supporting social isolation measures.”
Later this year BBC Studios and UK broadcaster ITV will launch Britbox, their streaming service which operates in the US and the UK.
“A year ago, the SVOD market was a two-player game. Now we have a big four as Netflix continues to dominate and Disney+ and Amazon are joining Stan at scale,” says Scott Lorson, CEO of OTT service Fetch, which offers Netflix and Amazon on its platform. “YouTube is in a different category but can’t be forgotten because it generates more traffic than all but Netflix.”
The closure of Australian cinemas in March combined with lockdown restrictions, have given in-home services a large captive audience. According to industry estimates, Netflix has more than 5.5 million subscribers in Australia, followed by Stan’s 1.7 million, the fast-growing Disney+ at 1.3 million and Amazon Prime at 1 million.
In the first quarter of 2020, Netflix added 15.7 million subscribers, boosting the worldwide total to 182.8 million, with nearly 70 million in the US and 112.9 million in the rest of the world.
The Fetch platform has seen an increase of almost 1.5 hours a day in viewing, mostly for the free-to-air channels, among its 700,0000 subscribers since the social distancing guidelines took effect. Rental transactions spiked by more than 75%.
“Australians are clearly looking for affordable content that entertains, informs and educates, as they spend more time at home,” Lorson says.
“When the lockdown ends, we expect household viewing to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. However, cyclical periods accelerate structural change, market share wins will be consolidated and challenged business models will be exposed.”
AMC Networks’ Acorn TV is experiencing record numbers of streaming hours and a 27% average week-on-week growth in new sign-ups in Australia. Darrien Puddy, Acorn Media International general manager for Australia, says the most popular programs include the Acorn-commissioned British mystery series Queens of Mystery, UK crime drama London Kills and Irish comedy Finding Joy.
Factual streaming service iwonder has seen double and three-fold increases in sign-ups and minutes viewed over the past few weeks in Australia, says founder James Bridges. A selection of its content is available for free in the documentary section of 7Plus.com.au, where viewing levels have also rocketed.
There is no word yet on when NBCUniversal’s Peacock, which acquired US rights to Hoodlum Entertainment/Network 10’s Five Bedrooms, will land in Australia. Peacock went live in the US on April 15, initially free for Comcast and Cox subscribers, ahead of the July 15 nationwide launch.
Australian exhibitors are hoping to open their doors in July, subject to the approval of federal and state governments and health authorities and the supply of films from the major Hollywood studios. While initial screenings may require limited audiences due to social distancing, the much-anticipated blockbusters – like Warner Bros’/ Chris Nolan time-travel thriller Tenet and Disney’s/Niki Caro live-action adventure-drama Mulan – will herald the return of the cinema experience and another platform for audiences to access great screen content.
Snapshots of some streaming platforms
The platform will offer a mix of exclusive and non-exclusive British content, including classic and contemporary box sets. The launch date and pricing are yet to be disclosed but in the UK the service, which airs such shows as Broadchurch, Call the Midwife, Poldark, The Office, Death in Paradise, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and Wolf Hall, costs £5.99 ($A11.65) per month.
Launched on April 7 by distributor and cinema-on-demand platform FanForce, FanForce TV initially offers 50 titles including Oscar winner Parasite, Damon Gameau’s 2040 and US feature doc Fat Fiction. The rental fee is the same as iTunes and other VOD platforms. FanForce founder Danny Lachevre said the project had been in the pipeline since last year and he had decided to bring forward the launch due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He aims to build the catalogue to 500 titles by the end of 2020 and is in discussions with potential distribution partners.
The SVOD service launched in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore last year, screening a broad range of docs and current affairs programming for $6.99 per month or $69.95 a year. Among the most watched shows are Eating Animals, narrated and produced by Natalie Portman; Kleptocrats, which profiles the financier who embezzled billions from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund; and Untouchable, the inside story of the rise and fall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Founder Jeffery Katzenberg has a war chest of $US1.75 billion to spend on original content, attracting top name talent including Steven Spielberg, who is writing a horror drama, his first writing project since A.I., Steven Soderbergh, Sam Rami, Antoine Fuqua, Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Kiefer Sutherland, Anna Kendrick, Sophie Turner, Reese Witherspoon and LeBron James. The running time of each show ranges from 3-10 minutes. The company said there were 1.7 million downloads of its app in the first week of operation in the US. Among the most watched shows were Jennifer Lopez’s Thanks a Million, Liam Hemsworth’s Most Dangerous Game and LeBron James’ I Promise. The service aims to release 175 original shows and 8,500 episodes in its first year and executives say they are working on plans to cast the app onto TV screens.
Ritz At Home
The newly launched VOD service owned by Eddie Tamir’s Classic, Lido and Cameo Cinemas in Melbourne and Sydney’s Ritz Cinemas offers hundreds of titles sourced from Australian and international distributors. The launch line-up includes Oscar-nominated documentary Honeyland, France’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, US sci-fi movie Vivarium and Damon Gameau’s 2040. The overseas suppliers include American Genre Film Archive, which specialises in preserving genre movies that might otherwise have been forgotten.