How TV Became Tech’s Favorite Vanity Project
Why are Netflix and HBO helping Tinder and Airbnb make TV?
It was when Tony Gunnarsson was making breakfast that he knew something was weird. The coffee packaging the Swede tore open cajoled him to visit CanalPlay, an on-demand video service run by French TV channel Canal+. A few minutes later, he received a message on his cellphone from a local public transport company, offering him a voucher to download a movie from a local video-sharing website.
It was a shock for Gunnarsson, an analyst who monitors the online video world for Ovum, a research company. But it’s the way things are going. ‘‘The bus company is giving me vouchers to download or rent a movie on the local iTunes equivalent, and coffee is producing a series?” he says. “Online video is certainly not a niche anymore.”
In fact, having a streaming TV series is the new must-have for any tech company — or, in fact, any company at all.
“The economics has come down, and the companies involved are getting better at pitching ideas to companies that perhaps wouldn’t be getting involved in any TV or video productions through the internet,” says Gunnarsson, who has tracked the rise of TV shows produced or funded by nontraditional TV companies.
Among the newcomers to the world of entertainment are Indian food apps and Amazon knockoffs, as well as U.K. supermarket Sainsbury’s and French food retailer Carrefour. Some choose to produce only TV shows, others elect to offer streaming platforms with tailored content, while a few decide to produce the content for their own platforms.
Producing original content is the natural reaction to a marketplace swimming in content, where every chocolate bar has a Twitter feed and every fast food restaurant has an Instagram mascot.
Many of the streaming services are “white-labeled” offerings, with logos slapped over prepackaged services such as those offered by MAZ. The New York–based company, which was founded in 2010, three years after Netflix started its streaming service, has nearly 1,000 white-label customers whose streaming platforms are used by more than 5 million users.
One of the most successful examples of combining a streaming platform with original content is Red Bull Media, the media arm of the European energy drink giant. “They’ve taken a very specific niche by having the adventure sports and extreme sports angle, which ties in with their drink product,” Gunnarsson says. “They have their own streaming platform that is free to use but is labeled as Red Bull Media, and they’ve been quite aggressive in getting their app on Apple TV and on my Amazon Fire TV Stick.”
It’s a bizarre notion: a beverage company that is its own media production house. But it works for Red Bull, and it’s vertically integrated. “They even sponsor athletes and pay them and make sure they have money to live on in exchange for producing these series on Red Bull Media,” Gunnarsson says.
And while Red Bull manages to produce content well, at its heart, it’s still marketing. “It’s just an extension of online advertisement, making commercials,” Gunnarsson says. “You just make them more hidden. Not the traditional TV commercial format.”
Producing original creative work is the natural reaction to a marketplace swimming in content, where every chocolate bar has a Twitter feed and every fast food restaurant has an Instagram mascot. “The noise levels are going through the roof, so companies are thinking, ‘What can we do to stick out now? Oh, let’s produce some original drama,’” Gunnarsson says.
Big tech, with its large cash reserves and desire to build brand loyalty, is no different.
Tinder recently launched its Swipe Night “interactive adventure” (essentially a choose-your-own-adventure TV show), which includes among its writing staff people who have prior experience in the writers’ room of Netflix’s Big Mouth and HBO’s Insecure. “More than half of Tinder members are Gen Z, and we want to meet the needs of our ever-evolving community,” says Ravi Mehta, chief product officer at Tinder. “We know Gen Z speaks in content, so we intentionally built an experience that is native to how they interact.”
Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, wants to build a film studio, according to Reuters, and already has two projects developed: a documentary about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a docuseries about people’s homes, which is more traditional territory when considering brand synergy.
While the likes of Tinder (current valuation: $10 billion) and Airbnb (last valued around four times that of Tinder and planning to launch its IPO next year) can afford to throw Netflix money at shows, other firms are taking advantage of the new economics of production. The YouTube era means an influx of cheap production talent, and professional-quality cameras and lighting are available on a relative budget. TV production companies that would squabble over a sacrosanct few slots every year come pilot season are now reveling in the opportunity to create programs for the myriad branded platforms out there.
But there’s a potential pitfall in companies’ pursuit of new media shows. Gunnarsson checked out the videos advertised by his morning coffee brand. “It’s half entertainment, half advertising for their brand,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t watch it. It’s hard to not see that it’s pure advertising. I’d rather watch a good series than waste my time watching sponsored content.”