C21: Sports Channel Network – UK SCHEDULE WATCH PROFILE: VOD 365 is taking its OTT service Sports Channel Network to the next level with new distribution agreements and content opportunities.

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SCHEDULE WATCH PROFILE: VOD 365 is taking its OTT service Sports Channel Network to the next level with new distribution agreements and content opportunities. Gün Akyuz reports.

Paul Coster

Overview

UK OTT provider VOD 365 is gearing up to expand its fledgling AVoD OTT channel Sports Channel Network (SCN).

The channel, which launched on the UK’s Freeview DTT platform late last year, is due to join YouView in November following its arrival as an app for iOS and Android devices later this month.

SCN is the firm’s third channel. VoD kids’ service Ketchup leads the pack, says Coster, while HD documentary channel Planet Knowledge relaunched last November.

VOD 365 is currently finalising an agreement with electronics giant Samsung to preload SCN and Planet Knowledge apps on its smart TVs from this autumn. In the case of Planet Knowledge, the agreement with Samsung marks VOD 365’s first UHD app, offering up to 25 hours of free UHD content.

A fourth channel, The Gas Station – a proposition for petrolheads – is also being prepared, with a similar roll-out planned on Freeview, YouView and apps by the end of the year.

VOD 365 is all about free TV platforms, says Coster. “We’re not trying to compete with pay TV or trying to be subscriber-based. All our channels are ad-supported, they’re on FTA platforms like Freeview and YouView and there will be free apps to download. We’re also developing for Samsung and we’ll start developing for others too, including LG and Sony.”

The company’s channels are already available to Freeview’s estimated four million connected sets. “Part of our USP is that we’re launched from the EPG on TVs and not just in the app section, so when you enter the channel number, we move from a broadcast signal to IP,” explains Coster.

Launching on YouView will add a further three million connected homes. As a “next-gen TV service, all the devices are internet-connected, so take- up and usage of those devices is very high and a lot easier for us to measure,” Coster notes.

“The great thing is that [YouView] still uses the Freeview EPG, so our channels are still going to sit in the same positions – Ketchup on 211, Planet Knowledge on 265 and SCN on 266. But YouView is a cleaner, faster experience and uses HTML5, so we can do more with it. Viewers can access our channels via the EPG and launch HTLM5 or go into the apps area, where Netflix and Amazon sit, and we’re there as well.”

All VOD 365’s channels are in HD as well as SD. “This is very important,” says Coster. “Freeview has very few HD broadcast channels because it’s very expensive to deliver. We’re one of the few in HD on Freeview, and the only free HD sports channel.”

A key feature for the currently VoD-only SCN will be live streaming, which will be introduced towards the end of the year. “We have a whole host of events lined up to come on board with us,” says Coster. “We’re having active conversations about live sports events on SCN and looking at over 100 different events.”

However, SCN is not seeking to compete with major players like Sky Sports and BT Sports. “We can’t do that and we’re not going to,” states Coster. “What we’re doing is creating a channel portal that can host multiple categories of sporting content that’s unsold to the likes of Sky, BT or Eurosport and giving that content a platform. That’s first and foremost what we want to do.”

VOD 365’s ad-based proposition is also addressing a few media-buying challenges, notably advances in programmatic advertising, which Coster says is still very much work in progress within the industry as a whole.

“Due to the nature of the technology, you’ve wandered into the world of broadcast technology,” he explains, “but trying to make digital advertising work with broadcast doesn’t happen. They’re alien to one another, so we had to build something that sits in the middle and we’ve made it work with the help of Google.”

VOD 365 now has partnerships with addressable TV technology firm Finecast and Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP) platform, and is in the process of developing joined-up reporting tools for an ad-supported presence on broadcast and digital and to give the viewer a better experience.

“We’ve taken a more hands-on approach because we think it’s quite important not to repeat the same ad two or three times in a row, for instance, like some services do,” says Coster. “We manage all that within the way we deliver it, so there are no conflicts.” Its Google partnership, for example, allows VOD 365 to run verifications on ad impressions, “so between that and all these different devices, we’ve got a bit of magic glue to make things stick and work.”

When it comes to the YouView launch, Coster adds: “There are other VoD apps on YouView but no one is delivering ads the way we are. They’re all fudging it – burning ads into the assets themselves, for example. We’re the first to deliver dynamic advertising.”

VOD 365’s ambitions don’t end there. By expanding its portfolio of targeted branded channels, it can offer larger aggregated channel inventory for media-buying agencies, although Coster concedes it’s still early days in terms of “getting lots of brands engaged to start using these types of services.”

Moreover, the company has developed technology to deliver its own branded channels, something Coster says is also “a potential device distribution business that could be applied to other channels. In fact, we’ve had conversations with a couple of big organisations about what we could offer going forward. We could white-label it, and why not?”

Current programming

SCN is home to a wide range of different sports, from mainstream to niche, amounting to more than 1,500 hours of HD content. Each week, the channel refreshes its line-up with up to 40 hours of new content.

Viewers can access more than 100 different sports, including football, motorsports, golfing, fishing, sailing, MMA, equestrian events, hockey, badminton, kickboxing, basketball and winter sports. Titles include IMG Media’s Golfing World and InCycle, as well as a weekly tennis show Deuce, football series Life’s a Pitch and MMA programme Total Combat. “But we also have Formula E and a weekly Formula 1 magazine called The Inside Line, and we’ve just taken on drone racing. There are a lot of new sports emerging,” says Coster.

The exec sees SCN as a potential incubator for a wide range of sports. “There are different audiences for different sports on different platforms,” he says, noting that fishing attracts older viewers on Freeview. “With data to help us create our strategy, what’s interesting is that if you look at what you may class as ‘niche’ sports, if you aggregate all the numbers together, it’s massive and into the millions.”

The service also offers eSports. Coster says the company is watching this sector very closely, noting the possibility of a dedicated eSports network in the future.

Data underpins VOD 365’s developments in a big way, from selling targeted advertising to curating content for niche audiences.

“The idea is to give these sports a home on a broadcast platform because when we watch sport, we want to watch it on a big screen,” says Coster. “We can work with these guys and develop their content in a TV environment on demand. In reverse, we’re saying we’ll give you the platform and we want you to communicate to new audiences where they can come and watch your content. It’s a very simple concept if we can aggregate these sports.

“Once you have meaningful portfolio content, you can better understand what’s working. Going forward, I think we’re going to have a range of different audiences. Certain content is going to work better on Freeview than on YouView or on mobile apps, just due to the nature of the demographics and what viewers typically associate with in terms of sports.”

The next big push will be to enhance content curation. “The beauty of these services and the way we deliver them is all the data we collect,” Coster says, highlighting the ability to use granular information to assist content curation based on level of usage, time of day and so on. “We can start using that data to push specific content and it will also help us with content acquisition and bringing new content in.”

When it comes to rights to mainstreams sports, such as football and tennis, the discussions tend to revert back to more traditional commercial models and agreements. “But with these other sports, the response has been fantastic and the enthusiasm from a lot of these other providers has been overwhelming,” says Coster.

VOD 365 is also working with social media fanbase-driven technology company Seed Media to uncover new hosting talent. “You’re influencing networks of fanbases with incentives to share information on your product. Given where we are with SCN, we think it’s a really interesting approach. There are lots of different niche sports, so if we can tap into the different communities of those sports, suddenly you’ve got a network that could potentially be quite big.”

Mipcom and Sportel will be key markets for SCN this autumn. Key categories on SCN currently include golf, sailing, motorsport and fishing.

“For Mipcom in particular, we’re looking for sports-related docs or magazine shows we can pick up. It will be about bolstering those categories where we know we have viewers engaged,” says Coster. “It’ll also be interesting to get talking to people about what we do and what they’ve got available, and those who don’t know we exist, because there aren’t many sports channels on FTA platforms.” SCN is the only HD sports service on Freeview, for example.

At Sportel, Coster says the focus will be on “getting out there and pushing our name out to more providers and seeing what’s available, what isn’t being sold to Sky and BT and what our opportunities are.”

He continues: “With sports, we’re very much about aggregating some premium HD sports content, putting it on TV for viewers free to watch and building an audience. Once we understand more about the usage – what’s strong and what’s not – from our data, we can carve out a content acquisition strategy to determine where we go with some of these bigger events and how we spend our money.”

There will also be Mipcom content sales opportunities for forthcoming channel The Gas Station, which plans to mix broadcast fare with YouTube content from car enthusiasts, as well as content-sharing opportunities with SCN, something sibling Planet Knowledge already does with titles like sporting doc The Immortals. “We’d like to launch with around 400 hours of content and build on it quite quickly,” says Coster, flagging requirements for “anything motor-related – primarily cars and classic cars, but also motorbike-related.”

Coster says the company has only really needed AVoD rights so far but is starting to pick up live OTT streaming rights for SCN. It is also looking into ‘Spotifying’ its approach by adding pay tier options.

“What we may do going forward with more premium content on live streaming, is PPV events,” says the exec. “Technically we have the capability to do that and we’re flexible in how we can package content. PPV could add value to the service, and there’s definitely sport that we will not get under ad-funded VoD or live rights because of the nature of that content and the attitude of the content owner.”

Coster believes some companies need to change their attitude to selling content rights to firms like VOD 365. “Why are we using age-old licensing agreements for new distribution opportunities? That’s one of the biggest problems we’re going to face going forward. It needs to change, in the same way that media agencies and how they spend needs to change.”