Streaming TV service Philo to launch a co-viewing feature for watching with friends

Following last year’s $40 million raise, low-cost streaming service Philo is preparing to further differentiate itself from rivals with the launch of a new feature that will allow viewers to watch shows together in real-time. With co-viewing, the company hopes to make a case for choosing Philo that goes beyond its affordability.

Instead, the company hopes subscribers will pick Philo simply because it’s a better way to watch TV.

It’s only been 14 months since Philo first introduced its take on the modern “skinny bundle” of TV delivered over the internet. The service opted to drop sports in order to keep the cost down, in order to appeal to budget-minded cord cutters, and particularly the younger demographic that never signed up for traditional TV in the first place.

Today, Philo subscribers can pay $16 per month for 43 entertainment and lifestyle channels – like those you’d find on cable TV – or you can opt top pay $20 for a larger bundle of 56 channels.

Since its debut, Philo has been quickly rolling out support for numerous platforms, including Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV. It also last year added user profiles, kicked off a referral program to boost its subscriber base, and introduced built-in sharing features.

While Philo won’t talk subscriber numbers yet, CEO Andrew McCollum told us at CES earlier this month that the service was growing 40 percent month-over-month, on average, throughout 2018.

For 2019, Philo aims to continue that trajectory, he said. And one way it’s planning to do so is through the launch of new product features.

“I feel like we have a really strong and unique offering, so it’s nice that people are responding to it,” McCollum said.

However, he admitted that, so far, what Philo offers is still very similar to cable TV – the very thing it aims to replace.

“We give you a lot of the same experience you can get on a cable box, only it works on all your devices. It’s an unlimited DVR. It’s all in the cloud. It’s much simpler. It’s got a lot better search and discovery…by default, we do a lot things to make it easier and better,” McCollum said. “But, by and large, it’s a similar experience to what you’re used to with cable.”

Now that’s about to change.

The company has developed a synchronization technology that will allow users to share links in order to invite friends and family to watch TV with them, at the same time.

This technology has been available on other platforms. For example, YouTube in 2017 launched an experimental app for watching videos with friends called Uptime. Tumblr tried, then shuttered, a similar app called Cabana. There are also apps like Let’s Watch It, Rabbit, and others. Even Facebook has been working on a co-watching feature.

But none of the live TV streaming services – like Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, etc. – offer a way to co-watch TV with others.

McCollum said Philo’s co-watching feature is finished from a technical perspective, and the team is now polishing the user interface. The plan, at present, will have Philo subscribers using their TV and their phone in conjunction with one another to launch the co-viewing experience.

The way it works is this: After finding something to watch, you’ll be able to press a button to share a link with a friend through a text message. The friend opens the link on their own phone, casts the show to their TV, and Philo then links the two sessions together.

The team is finalizing how this all flows to make the process feel seamless and natural, with as few steps as possible, McCollum said. But the feature is ready to launch, and will arrive “soon.”

In addition to co-viewing, Philo is also working on a clever joint recommendations feature. With this, you and someone else – a roommate, a friend, or a significant other, for example – could connect your Philo profiles together in order to browse a set of recommendations based on your shared tastes and interests.

This may launch after the co-viewing experience, but the two features will be tied together at some point.

Also in 2019, Philo says it will explore expanding its service through add-ons. These may encompass premium cable channels (like Showtime and Starz, e.g.), premium digital content, or even traditional broadcasts networks, or sports channels.

“We want to balance creating more options with making sure people don’t feel like they’re being coerced into stuff they don’t care about,” said McCollum.

Philo’s coming updates could make the service more compelling at a time when there’s an overabundance of choice in terms of getting TV delivered over the internet. While on-demand video services like Netflix and Prime Video have amassed millions of subscribers, many consumers today are still deciding if they want to cut the cord with cable TV – only to replace it with something that looks very much like cable TV. Philo could encourage them to make the switch by offering something differentiated.

Philo to date has raised over $90 from investors including AMC Networks, Discovery, Viacom, A+E Networks, CBC New Media, NEA, Rho Ventures and Xfund.

(Image credits: Philo; images do not show the yet-to-launch features)


TV broadcaster Sinclair launches STIRR, a free streaming service with local news and sports

Local TV broadcasting company Sinclair Broadcast Group today announced the launch of a new streaming service called STIRR that aims to bring local TV news and other content to the growing number of cord cutters across the U.S. The company today owns over 190 TV stations, which it’s leveraging in order to create its own “skinny bundle.” However, unlike TV streaming services such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV, or YouTube TV, for example – STIRR will be free and ad-supported instead of a paid subscription.

The service will offer access to national news, sports, entertainment and digital-first channels and a video-on-demand library in addition to its local content, which serves as the anchor for the new service.

In a special channel called STIRR CITY (yes, all caps), the service will stream a curated, 24/7 program lineup based on where the viewer lives. This will include local news, local and regional sports, entertainment and city-focused lifestyle programming from the local Sinclair TV station in that city.

STIRR CITY joins other original channels developed for the service, including STIRR Movies (for some reason, no caps), STIRR Sports, and STIRR Life.

STIRR Sports and Life will offer locally focused programs, we’re told. For example, the Sports channel may show high school football, and the Life channel might show a local lifestyle show like “Seattle Refined.” When local content isn’t available, the channels will be fleshed out with content aggregated from other networks on STIRR.

STIRR Movies will also be aggregated content, but the company is exploring additional deals, we’re told.

At launch, there are over 20 national networks and digital-first stations available, but few are notable.

The list includes: BUZZR, Charge, Cheddar, Comet, CONtv, Dove Channel, DUST, FailArmy, Futurism, Gravitas, Mobcrush, MovieMix, NASA TV, Outdoor America, The Pet Collective, SOAR, Stadium, TBD, The T, and World Poker Tour.

The company says it plans to grow its selection to over 50 networks by the end of 2019.

It’s clear, however, that the network selection won’t be the draw here – it’s the local content.

Today, it’s still fairly difficult for cord cutters to access local programming. While consumers can use a digital antenna to capture over-the-air TV signals for free, it requires the installation of a not-very-aesthetically-pleasing antenna. (At least Amazon’s Fire TV Recast gives you the option of hiding the antenna in a back room so as not to junk up your entertainment center.)

But even with an antenna, signals can be hit-or-miss – some areas have poor reception, or are too far from the signal’s source for a good experience.

And while the new crop of live TV streaming services provide another means of accessing local channels, they are not free.

Plus, the live TV services include cloud DVRs which subscribers use to record programs then skip the ads. STIRR doesn’t have a recording option, which may make it attractive to advertisers.

“Despite the explosive growth of new national over-the-top (OTT) services, local TV station’s programming, especially local news, has remained some of the most popular and desired content to audiences and advertisers alike,” said Adam Ware, STIRR’s General Manager, in a statement. “By creating the STIRR CITY channel format, local TV stations can now extend their programming strength to OTT,” he added.

Ware also points out that STIRR will give advertisers a way to reach a different demographic who is no longer watching traditional TV.

“Local broadcast traditional skews older. Streaming skews younger,” he tells TechCrunch. “This brings the two together for the first time,” he says.

STIRR’s ad sales will be coordinated between Sinclair Digital, OTT Compulse and Sinclair’s local stations. And its ad revenue is shared with content partners. (The company hasn’t ruled out a premium version that eliminates ads, we understand, but has nothing like that at launch.)

Also of note, you don’t have to live in a particular city to tune into its local programming via STIRR. That’s good, too, because STIRR doesn’t have a presence in all major metros. But it will suggest your closest markets when you load the app.

One caveat about STIRR: while local programming is available, STIRR won’t stream the primetime shows that these networks carry – you’ll still need your antenna or a paid streaming service for that. (Or, if you’re like a growing number of TV viewers, you don’t watch much network TV these days, in favor of streaming shows on Netflix and Amazon.)

In time, STIRR’s selection of content could be enhanced by more regional sports channels, as it’s a top bidder for those being sold by Disney and Fox. That could make the service more compelling.

STIRR is available for free on the web, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku.

*We’ve run into some launch bugs when testing STIRR, and have gotten page load errors when trying to access the Channel Guide. Hopefully these will smooth out in time as traffic stabilizes.





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