Content Aggregation Services: What’s the Hold Up?

Dan Meier 22 May, 2023 


As more content floods streaming services, and more streaming apps crowd the TV home screen, the issue of finding what to watch has never been more challenging. How do I watch the latest beach-based reality dating show? What streaming service is it on? Do we still subscribe to that or did we cancel it so we could have the heating on?

Numerous studies have exposed the exhausting effect of this content confusion, with viewers spending anywhere between 6 minutes (per LG Ads) and half an hour (Plex) scrolling through multiple streaming services to find something to watch. According to Nielsen, 21 percent of consumers simply give up and don’t watch anything at all.

Though much of the research should be taken with a pinch of salt – commissioned as it is by companies with their own products to sell – the results clearly indicate consumer appetite for an aggregated streaming service, where all the content they have access to is listed in one easy-to-find place; a global Accenture survey found that 86 percent of consumers want an “all-in-one” streaming app. There are currently Sky packages that include the likes of Netflix and Paramount+, and smart TVs come with multiple streaming apps preinstalled, but they remain separate on the interface, leaving the content discovery issue unresolved.

Why can’t we all just get along?

There are a number of barriers to this utopian streaming vision, a primary factor being data. An effective aggregator app would require various streaming services to share their data, in order to drive the content recommendation algorithm. This is something companies are reluctant to do given the value of their first-party log-in data, making it challenging to recommend content from different services to a single user. As it stands, a TV provider such as Sky can see when a user has clicked on their Netflix or Disney+, but cannot see what they are watching within the app.

That said, automatic content recognition (ACR) technology enables smart TV manufacturers such as Samsung or LG to see what users are watching on the TV, including via set-top boxes and other connected devices. ACR data is already used for content recommendations on the home screen, but is generally the preserve of advertising companies.

There are also regulatory hurdles, particularly in the UK, where the prominence of TV channels is regulated by communications watchdog Ofcom. The incoming Media Bill is set to bring streaming companies under Ofcom’s jurisdiction, extending the prominence currently enjoyed by public service broadcasters (PSB) on linear TV onto connected TV. An aggregated service would have to prioritise PSB content, leaving the commercial content providers to negotiate their prominence.

Streaming companies already pay TV manufacturers for branded buttons on their remotes, a practice the PSBs have condemned as “buying prominence”. TV regulators will be keen to avoid the kind of billion-dollar payments Google makes to smartphone manufacturers to maintain its position as the default search engine on their devices.

Full circle

On top of these complexities is the issue of cost, as a content aggregator would still require subscriptions to multiple streaming services. In the UK last year, the number of streaming subscriptions fell by two million as consumers reacted to a cost-of-living crisis, according to Kantar. In the US, Deloitte found that around 44 percent of consumers cancelled an SVOD service in 2022. Should the current economic pressures persist, the future of streaming is not necessarily in aggregation, but bundling; offering streaming packages for a reduced price, either through a traditional pay-TV provider or the streaming companies themselves.

In the UK, Sky already bundles Paramount+ into its Sky Cinema package; in the US, Disney offers a discounted bundle of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+. The content providers are also consolidating their streaming services to bring their formerly siloed content into one place. Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) launches Max this week, combining HBO Max and Discovery+, while Disney will merge Disney+ and Hulu later this year. In October, reports in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Amazon and WBD were considering bundles with rival streaming companies.

If that all sounds eerily familiar, it might look like a return to the kind of pay-TV subscriptions that streaming was intended to get away from. “It’s almost going a bit full circle,” says Matt Ross, Managing Director at UK measurement firm Digital i. “We might end up back in a world that doesn’t look too dissimilar from where we were 15 years ago, with Sky as the aggregator for a whole host of digital ad-supported channels.” This could be replicated with streaming services, particularly given the move to ad-supported streaming by the major players. But again, negotiating how ad revenues are split makes these deals difficult – and the bundling model does not necessarily solve the issue of content discovery.

Crossing the streams

Despite the complexities, there are already streaming aggregation services in the UK, US and Europe, proving the viability of such a product. Streaming aggregator Plex is available in over 180 countries and pulls content from more than 450 services globally. Last year, Plex launched a ‘Discover’ feature, which enables users to search for content across all their streaming services. It also has a ‘Universal Watchlist’ where users can add titles from multiple services.

“This results in less time spent searching for something to watch across multiple apps and platforms, and more time spent on enjoying content,” says Scott Hancock, VP Marketing at Plex. “As the industry continues to evolve with convenience in mind, we can anticipate more players to enter the industry and pursue bundling and aggregating content.”

Meanwhile Joyn, a streaming joint venture between ProSiebenSat.1 Media and WBD, has aggregation at the core of its business. The German streaming service offers content from more than 65 public and private broadcasters, including live streams of linear channels such as Comedy Central, MTV and Bloomberg Television.

“Now that more and more streaming providers are entering the market, we firmly believe in a consolidation of different content in one place,” says Thomas Münzner, VP Content at Joyn. “Easy access to as much different content as possible increases convenience for users.”

While these services have relatively few users compared to the streaming giants, they are finding their place in a fragmented ecosystem; Joyn has 6.4 million monthly active users, and Plex 16 million. And with AI set to revolutionise the precision of content recommendations, aggregation could yet become key in easing streaming aggravation.

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