C21Media: SCHEDULE WATCH PROFILE: VOD 365’s AVoD factual channel Planet Knowledge is looking to expand further and add more content deals as its viewer base grows. Gün Akyuz reports.

Overview
UK AVoD channel Planet Knowledge has been on a significant growth trajectory since its relaunch in late 2017, thanks to its growing distribution and a change in content strategy.

“Last year was all about rebuilding the brand and audiences on [free-to-air platform] Freeview, expanding distribution and rebuilding our apps,” says Paul Coster, CEO of VOD 365, the UK OTT provider that owns and operates Planet Knowledge, along with kids’ service Ketchup and sports service Sports Channel Network.

VOD 365 is the first such UK company to exploit the OTT AVoD window in the country’s FTA digital space and remains the only one doing so on platforms such as Freeview, and now YouView, which it joined in the fourth quarter of last year.

Programmatic advertising is also integrated into its business model using Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers ad manager platform. “It means we can now micro-manage ad campaigns down to an episodic level. If there’s a brand campaign that only wants to be associated with certain content on Planet Knowledge, we can manage that.”

The company is now discussing another carriage agreement with an as-yet-undisclosed UK pay broadcast platform to carry its free channels and apps.

Earlier this spring, the company relaunched its channel apps on IOS and Android mobile phones. Additionally, Planet Knowledge is poised to go live on Android TV in a few weeks’ time and has just launched on Huawei phones, which have a UK user base of three million. “They’re talking about integrating all of our channels into their Huawei video service, which they are planning to launch in multiple territories in the autumn,” adds Coster.

Alongside its expanded distribution, VOD 365 has been courting a number of larger content deals with bigger suppliers, which have since given it more traction on Freeview and YouView.

A content deal with All3Media provided shows including Dinosaur Britain

The catalyst was Planet Knowledge’s licence deal with Fox last year for 80 hours of National Geographic wildlife content. More agreements have followed, including with All3Media and Cineflix.

The Fox deal, which includes shows like Ancient X Files, Egypt Underworld and Journey to Shark Eden, earned it a 43% jump in viewership between Q2 and Q3 2018 and around 400,000 viewers, 223,000 of which were unique, says Coster. “We started to see the benefits of that premium HD content,” he comments.

Further content deals and the channel’s launch on YouView at the end of November further accelerated its growth, with a 36% increase in viewing in December and more than half-a-million viewers, 300,000 of them unique.

A content licensing deal with All3Media at the end of 2018, covering titles such as Alexandria: The Greatest City, Dinosaur Britain, Henry & Anne, The Lovers Who Changed History and Pompeii: Life Before Death, further boosted its content offer, contributing to further growth in Q1 2019. Coster says VOD 365 will be looking to expand the initial two-year deal of 20 hours. New titles include Fifth Gear and Engineering Giants.

The channel grew a further 15% in Q1 2019 and is currently averaging more than 600,000 viewers, about 350,000 of them unique. “It’s still niche but that’s a sizeable audience, delivering viewing figures that are generating big volumes of ad impressions and money,” says Coster.

On YouView in particular, Coster says a majority of launches now come from the player section rather than the EPG.

Planet Knowledge’s top shows in March included Pompeii: Life Before Death

A new web player is also poised to launch this month. “As we do more social stuff, it’s an easier way to get people to engage and view content through the brand, as opposed to going off to the TV and find the channel,” says Coster. “The web player will be hosted on the website, but we also want white label-type opportunities, such as offering TV set brands a VoD package of channels and content to give their audiences added value.”

The channel relaunched recently on Samsung smart TV sets, which carry 4K. “That’s been quite a big thing and we’ll be monitoring that,” says Coster.

With distribution in the UK broadened quite significantly, Coster says conversations are beginning with potential platforms oversees in Europe and also Australia. “It’s finding where those quick wins are in terms of territories,” he observes

While conceding it won’t be easy, he argues: “We’re not out there licensing the brand new Blue Planet, so there’s probably a bit more flexibility to extend licensing rights for multiple territories. Those rights clearances haven’t happened yet but our content partners are primed.”

By next year, VOD 365 expects to have five channels up and running. Alongside Ketchup SCN and Planet Knowledge, still waiting in the wings is its petrolhead service Gas Station. But also due to join the line-up in the UK is a new music channel, following a deal with an as-yet-undisclosed partner. Featuring a vast video catalogue of major artists, it will be “like a video Spotify environment on FTA TV,” says Coster. “There’s nothing like it on free TV and I think it’s going to be massive.”

Lost Treasures of Afghanistan

Current programming, factual, acquisitions
Coster says Planet Knowledge offers around 250 to 300 hours of content at any given point, with this being refreshed every four-to-six weeks.

“That’s the bit we want to change,” Coster explains. “While we’ll be acquiring much more content, we don’t necessarily want more volume on the channel at any one time, we want to curate it more and work the content harder in those categories.”

With more extensive viewer data to inform its acquisitions strategy, Coster is particularly keen for Planet Knowledge to be a curated service, not a ‘warehouse’ of titles, and viewers should expect to see more monthly themes, for instance. “Going forward, it’s about curating the content more frequently; it’s about campaigns, targeted content and themes,” he says.

“By doing that we’re getting more efficient in terms of our acquisitions strategy and categories that work.”

Take travel-related content, which always did quite well in the early days of Planet Knowledge. These days, Coster says the genre is relatively niche and performs less well than other categories on the channel like history, people and culture, the perennially successful wildlife, and science and technology.

Its Cineflix agreement includes shows such as WW2 Gamechangers, Nazi Hunters and Mohammad Ali – A Life Of. Another is its new content deal with Blue Ant International, covering titles like Jewels of the World, Canada Over the Edge and The Weather Files.

Top shows on the channel in March included Ancient X Files II, Pompeii: Life Before Death, Into the Great Pyramid, Lost Treasures of Afghanistan, Alexandria: The Greatest City, Egypt’s Hidden Treasure, Versailles Stories, Chasing UFOs season one, Diving into Noah’s Flood and newcomer Dinosaur Britain. Other new arrivals to the line-up include Battle of the Somme, Engineering Giants, Jewels of the World, The Weather Files and Fifth Gear, which launches this month.

Alexandria: The Greatest City

With Planet Knowledge now delivering more meaningful numbers and working more closely with a few established content providers, its acquired content has become stronger overall. “The All3 Media deal and those few titles told us a lot and showed what you can do with premium broadcast content. We want to work a lot more closely with them and others,” Coster says.

But Coster says Planet Knowledge remains open to new themes. “If we see compelling content, we’ll happily take a risk. That’s what these sorts of services allow you to do. You don’t have to stick to a strict strategy.”

Planet Knowledge is also seeking to increase its shortform content, which has led it to conversations with players like Little Dot Studios, with a deal currently being negotiated.

“We both see a lot of opportunities around cross-aggregating content and promotion. They have some wildlife brands that do very well on YouTube. For us, that’s a brilliant test environment. We can take that content and bring it to a broadcast audience via the EPG, and they really like that strategy,” explains Coster. “In turn, we can take our content back out to their YouTube audiences and start building Planet Knowledge as a brand through those kinds of streams.”

Additionally, in its agreement with Fox, Planet Knowledge has negotiated rights to edit longform documentaries down to 20 minutes, to create more bitesize content as the company moves into the world of apps and mobile audiences.

New deals now being negotiated include a package of factual titles with Endemol Shine. Coster says that while the content giant runs its own YouTube channels, it doesn’t have a channel presence on Freeview, making the deal with an AVoD service like Planet Knowledge an interesting additional window for exploitation.

Diving into Noah’s Flood

Coster says VOD 365 and Planet Knowledge are keen to discuss the AVoD window with others larger suppliers such as BBC Studios. “A lot of content owners are sitting on valuable archive and not doing anything with it because there’s nowhere for it to go. We’re saying there are fewer opportunities for documentaries on broadcast platforms, and even fewer on FTA ones.”

However, he says that Planet Knowledge won’t be looking to fit into the traditional licensing model of “writing a big cheque and taking all the risk.”

Planet Knowledge expects to add a further 100 to 150 hours over the next couple of months. “The idea will be to take the everyday package available to viewers up to 400 hours and then just keep refreshing it,” says Coster.

“It’s where we’re at right now, but that may change again. If the shortform content starts doing as well as we think it will, then clearly we’ll be carrying more titles.”

Planet Knowledge seeks pure AVoD rights, ideally for a minimum of 12 months, but doesn’t require exclusivity.

“That works well in our favour,” says Coster. “I say that because we’re delivering content in such a unique way on Freeview and YouView that we almost don’t need it right now. But that will change. We’re trying to build a relationship with content owners to give them an incremental revenue stream and we try to work on a flexible basis.”