With Always-On Channels, Streamers Are Looking More and More Like Traditional TV

Live streaming channels, comfort food for cord-cutters, help beef up ad inventory

One out of five cord-cutters said they missed the ability to click through live programming channels, Roku found. Source: Getty Images

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NBCUniversal streamer Peacock came onto the scene nationally last week with plenty of the usual on-demand programming options. But one of its most talked-about features is one that felt solidly rooted in the company’s traditional television roots: live channels.

These always-on channels—of which there are more than two dozen arranged in a familiar TV grid layout—offer viewers a steady stream of programming while eliminating the need to search for the right on-demand program to suit their mood. The “lean-back” offering is an increasingly popular feature on streamers: On Thursday, streaming media platform Plex said it was debuting 80 free, always-on channels for its viewers, while ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV boasts a whopping 250 free streaming channels for users to browse.

“So many streaming services tend to feel like a casino, where there’s no sense of time or place,” Peacock chairman Matt Strauss said just prior to that service’s national premiere. “We think we can come to market with this service that really does have this pulse and really taps into the different ways that people consume video.”

With the feature, Peacock joins a collection of streaming services staking part of their bets on a decidedly old-school feature of TV. The old adage for streamers was that video-on-demand was the future of video, but as traditional linear viewership continues to slide, media companies are betting that some cord-cutters still want to channel surf instead of searching through a labyrinthine on-demand library. They’re also hoping advertisers will be keen on running their messages alongside the abundance of programming that can now stream on live channels 24-7.

“There’s just an immense amount of content being produced, but where is all of it going to air?” said Cara Lewis, evp, video investment, Dentsu Aegis. “These channels are a way to get old and new content out there. Platforms know the consumer is shifting there, so they need to get scale and they need to get inventory in order to have something to sell.”

Pluto TV, one of the trailblazers in the streaming channel space, debuted in 2014 with 85 channels, taking the contrarian view that there would be an appetite for always-on channels in streaming. Other services have followed suit: Roku began rolling out live channels in 2018, starting with live news offerings, and now has more than 110 channels on the service programmed by content partners.

Pluto debuted in 2014 with 85 live channels, and now features more than 250 of them.

The investment in live is partially driven by consumer survey data: One out of five cord-cutters said they missed the ability to click through live programming channels, and nearly one in three said they missed a legacy channel guide interface, said Rob Holmes, Roku’s vp of programming, who heads The Roku Channel and the platform’s live streaming business.

“People thought live was dead and that everything was moving to on-demand—but it’s not so much that live is dead, but that cable is expensive,” Holmes said. “Free live is turning out to be really compelling across all demographics.”

Live viewership, like other video consumption, is on the rise. Consumption of live streaming programming within The Roku Channel increased 125% in the first quarter of 2020, and an increase in pandemic-driven viewership increased quarterly average growth even more in March. On Pluto TV, live news programming viewership alone has more than doubled since pandemic-related shutdowns began.

“People thought live was dead and that everything was moving to on-demand—but it’s not so much that live is dead, but that cable is expensive.”
Rob Holmes, Roku’s vp of programming,

That growth is giving services another way to monetize their audiences. More than half of Roku’s advertisers include live channels as part of their broader audience buys, said Alison Levin, Roku’s vp of advertising. “The vast majority of the value proposition Roku offers is an audience-based buy with precision, and live is a key component of that,” Levin said. “The important thing is that it drives additional households, it drives another new consumer and it drives a consumer who doesn’t have cable.”

While live offers that incremental reach for advertisers, streaming channels can’t match the scale of a traditional TV channel. That’s why inventory on those channels are often wrapped up as part of larger audience-based buys.

“There’s just not enough scale to buy just one channel,” Lewis said. “We’ve maybe gone to [streaming partners] and said we want to omit certain channels, and there can be inclusion and exclusion lists, but we can’t just buy X, Y and Z channel because there’s just no way that alone will meet goals.”

Streamers are hoping that a continued fine-tuning of channels will help satisfy cord-cutters and keep them coming back to their platforms again and again. To keep things fresh, Pluto TV regularly debuts limited-run pop-up channels centered on certain programming themes, most recently rolling out Star Trek and CSI-specific channels. Peacock launched its first pop-up channel, Road to Tokyo, dedicated to all things Olympics, this week.

“As more and more of these mid-phase adopters come to streaming from cable, you’re just going to see more and more of this kind of consumption,” Holmes said. “It’s a familiar behavior for a lot of our viewers, and it’s what a lot of viewers want.”

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.