Content Cafe

Niche streaming services find innovative ways to connect with consumers

by Andrew Colley — 15/8/2019

As a fan of Japanese anime, 18-year-old aspiring art student Macey (not her real name) wasn’t alone in her devotion to the genre, but she says it wasn’t always easy to maintain. Store DVD and Blu-ray catalogues didn’t meet her demand for more obscure titles and, as a digital native with little patience for obstacles when it came to following her favourite shows, the inevitable happened.

“I often found the DVDs online, but to be honest I also did a lot of pirating. I know you’re not supposed to, but I did it a lot before (anime) services like AnimeLab came along,” Macey says.

AnimeLab is Madman Entertainment’s streaming video service for its anime catalogue and Macey subscribes to it along with a similar service called Crunchyroll. They’re both more established examples of how streaming services are evolving to serve niche audiences.

Those niche players and others like them are helping to address online film and TV piracy, but their designers say their goals go beyond that. They are allowing the home entertainment sector to embrace digital age tools and innovation to disrupt traditional approaches to content distribution and re-engineer their business models.

AnimeLab has given Madman the ability to reach a wide variety of devices.

Madman chief technology officer Tom Byrne said that while AnimeLab had enormous potential to monetise a segment of the market where piracy was rampant that was only part of the business case for launching it. The company already had digital distribution channels for its anime content; what it really wanted was to be closer to its customers.

The company launched the AnimeLab streaming distribution platform in mid-2014 and it now carries 10,000 episodes from hundreds of shows in the anime genre under both subscription-free ad-supported and premium subscription models.

The platform has given Madman the ability to reach a wide variety of devices and, for the first time, the ability to offer fans access to content simulcast with its release in Japan.

“AnimeLab is our first foray into building something that addresses that innovator’s dilemma of when to disrupt your industry and build out something that’s new,” Byrne says.

“We’ve always worked with digital partners to distribute content, but we wanted to be in a position where we’ve moved up the food chain and we’re running our own service and have a direct connection with our audiences. That’s always been one of the key motivators for Madman, being able to connect with our fans”.

And being able to connect with fans allows for further innovation. For instance, based on analytics about audience response to content, Madman is able to continually improve its library and user experience. It’s also allowed Madman to identify new offline business opportunities such as its AnimeFestival.

Digital innovation in home entertainment is also playing a role promoting and preserving content with social and cultural value that might struggle to reach an audience, if it’s produced at all.

Newly launched Singapore-based streaming service iwonder offers documentary and current affairs content in Australia, New Zealand and some emerging markets in Asia.

CEO James Bridges says that high quality, factual documentary production is increasingly yielding to pressures on the pay TV industry to serve mass market audiences and shifting resources to lifestyle and reality TV. They’re more likely to produce docudramas and pay TV operators are demanding less “true” documentary content, which is making it harder to find, he says.

Bridges says that has left a gap in the market to create a commercially viable documentary streaming service.

“We’re in a position where we have a relatively lean operation, a small team and a low-cost content base so we don’t need hundreds of millions of subscribers to have a viable business and yet still provide great quality documentaries,” Bridges says.

Iwonder uses a broad mix of telco partnerships, and AVOD and SVOD to monetise its content. However, Bridges says that iwonder’s key innovation is its use of digital news feeds to develop its audience.

Iwonder offers documentary and current affairs content in Australia, New Zealand and some emerging markets in Asia.

The site’s content matrix includes a digital news feed licensed from news outlets and then offers viewers related documentaries based on the stories they choose to read.

“What we don’t see anyone else doing is blending news and current affairs with content in such a direct way. We’re not where you’re going to go to find out what’s breaking in the news, but when you do see something interesting in the news, we hope that you’ll expect to see what iwonder has done related to it to offer deeper context,” Bridges says.

That opens up the possibilities for a range of innovative approaches to content promotion in the future. For instance, iwonder is exploring the potential to add podcasts to its content line up and in future it may invert its current approach to partner directly with news outlets to draw audiences to its service.

Bridges concedes piracy played a powerful role in forcing the pay TV and home entertainment industry to innovate, the vast growth in digital distribution platforms means the sector is now innovating on its own terms.

For niche platforms like AnimeLab and iwonder, their focus on building a connection to customers and understanding the ways in which audiences want to engage with content will ensure their respective streaming services continue to evolve.



Andrew Colley is a freelance business journalist specialising in technology, telecommunications and media. He has been writing about the sectors and the relationship between them for over 20 years, including ten as a senior reporter for a national broadsheet.