Cord cutters’ choice: Streaming TV alternatives spring up in Netflix’s shadow

Cord cutters’ choice: Streaming TV alternatives spring up in Netflix’s shadow

By REX CRUM | | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: March 15, 2018 at 6:00 am | UPDATED: March 15, 2018 at 3:21 pm

The popularity of cutting the cord to traditional cable TV bundles isn’t just evident in the number who have done it —13.5 million people by 2017, according to MoffettNathenson Research. It’s also obvious in the individual streaming subscriptions now being offered, with more options for viewing different genres of films and TV shows.

Most streaming subscribers have turned to one of the Major Leaguers: Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. Los Gatos-based Netflix, alone, has 117.6 million subscribers worldwide, with almost 55 million of those in the United States.

But the biggest streaming services still don’t offer all things to all viewers, and that’s created an opening for a growing menu of streamers providing specialty alternatives — everything from Sundance Now’s independent films to Filmstruck’s classics, BritBox’s British programming, Brown Sugar’s African-American movies and shows, and even original and exclusive shows by some of these outlets.

“We are seeing a plethora of these niche and focused demographic streaming services that are multiplying by the week, and it speaks to the appetite for content programming in this new era of cord cutting,” said Dan Ives, chief strategy officer at GBH Insights.

That appetite is being fed by the likes of MHz Choice, a $7.99-a-month streaming service that specializes in non-English-language, European TV programming. Shows from Scandinavia, Germany, France and Italy abound on MHz Choice. The streamer, which launched in late 2015, has also expanded its focus eastward with its first program from Poland, “Wataha” (“The Pack”) about a team of border guards working on the Polish frontier with Ukraine.

“There’s a huge amount of unexploited product waiting to premiere, and we saw an opportunity to evolve our business,”  said Lance Schwulst, vice president of content strategy at MHz Networks, the Falls Church, Virginia-based broadcaster that runs MHz Choice. “This is the outcome of a natural evolution in television.”

Schwulst said the demand for MHz Choice is reflected in its “steady month-to-month” subscriber growth since its launch. The fact that a subscription streaming service with no English-language programming can find an audience among American TV viewers demonstrates how such streaming services appeal to users who choose to pay only for the programming they really want.

For those willing to pay, there’s an internet-based TV streamer made for just about everyone.

Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection are available from Filmstruck for $6.99 a month, $10.99 a month, or $99 a year.

Those who like a mix of independent films, dramas and international shows can pony up $6.99 a month, or $59 for a year for Sundance Now, a subscription streaming service run by Sundance TV.

For $3.99 a month, Brown Sugar, owned by the Bounce TV network, offers a library of African-American-led shows and movies, including notable titles such as “Shaft” and “Foxy Brown” that hail from the 1970s. In one of Brown Sugar’s promos, legendary actress Pam Grier describes the service as, “Like Netflix, only blacker.”

Fans of British comedies and dramas also have multiple resources to fill their desire for shows from across the pond. The British networks BBC and ITV jointly run BritBox, a compendium of all-British programming, that costs $6.99 a month. Acorn TV calls itself “The Best British TV,” but also includes programs from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and some non-English European nations, for $4.99 a month, or $49.99 for a year’s subscription.

“Fairly early on, we realized we could create our own (streaming) platform,” said Mark Stevens, chief content officer at Acorn Brands, which runs Acorn TV under its parent media company, RLJ Entertainment. “We’re very focused on a particular audience, and that helps us do great things like find shows that might not have an audience in the U.S.”

Stevens said subscribers for Acorn, and RLJ’s other streaming TV service, the $4.99-a-month Urban Movie Channel, continue to grow, with the services reaching more than 700,000 subscribers in January, up from 620,000 in September 2017.

Michael Pachter, an analyst who covers Netflix and other media companies for Wedbush Securities, said there appears to be a basic philosophy that these specialized subscription streamers adhere to.

“I think the strategy for all of them is to replicate what we have on cable TV now, which is essentially a single subscription to a bundle of services,” Pachter said. “Ultimately, they’re betting that consumers will cut the cord and subscribe to several different services, and they hope to be part of the bundle.”

Like their bigger peers, the smaller, subscription-based TV streamers recognize two things that are necessary to creating and holding an audience: access and content. Apps for the services are available from all the major app stores for use on set-top boxes, tablets and mobile phones.

And the emphasis on adding exclusive and original content isn’t lost on the likes of Jan Diedrichsen, general manager of Sundance TV and Sundance Now, which is owned by AMC Networks.

Sundance TV began life in 1996 as Sundance Channel when it was launched as an offshoot of Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.

“We might not have a multibillion-dollar budget,” Diedrichsen said. “But, we take great care in what shows bring to the surface. We’ve co-produced a number of shows at Sundance TV, which gives us this TV network as a resource so that more than ever, when we co-produce for Sundance TV, we secure the (streaming) rights for Sundance Now.”

Originally launched as Sundance Doc Club and specializing in documentaries, the service re-branded itself as Sundance Now in 2016 and spread its wings to include dramatic and comedic films, and TV programs in English and foreign languages. Its original series include the highly lauded French espionage show “The Bureau,” and the British drama “Liar,” starring Joanne Froggatt, formerly of the PBS hit “Downton Abbey.”

In February, Sundance Now premiered “This Close,” the first TV show created and produced exclusively for its service. Deaf actors Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman created and star in the six-episode series.

“For us, it’s the perfect kind of thing we want to do at Sundance Now,” Diedrichsen said. “We want to find the right voices and creators we can champion, and we are looking at doing more of these things.”

Acorn is among those taking similar steps into original programming produced for its service, as it has commissioned a second original season of the British comedy-drama “Agatha Raisin,” based on the series of novels of the same name.

“It did well in the U.K.,” said Acorn’s Stevens. “But the network that had it there went another way, and now we’re taking over the whole thing.”

Regardless of the kinds of programs they show, and the audiences they aim to reach, smaller streamers make no bones about where they stand in relation to the big leaguers such as Netflix in the streaming TV market.

“We always intended ourselves to be a complement to the bigger guys,” Stevens said. “It’s important to note we are independent, and we’re very focused on a particular audience. And we’ve seen consistent growth year after year.”


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