Sling TV, PBS Anywhere, TV4 and other smaller, niche OTT services struggle for viewers' attention

NEW YORK -- Newer, smaller over-the-top video services have a huge hurdle to overcome as they try to reach the top of the SVOD pile: consumers who are barely aware that OTT services beyond Netflix, Hulu and Amazon even exist.

At a panel session here during the OTT Executive Summit, consumers who made up the summit's "trender" participants indicated that they rarely discovered new streaming apps or content outside of the services they were already accustomed to using. And although most of the panel expressed interest in niche streaming services that were described to them, they had not heard of many of the services mentioned -- even though some have been operating for months.

That even extended to Sling TV, Dish Network's linear MVPD service. Only one consumer panelist had heard of the offering. "My husband mentioned that Sling is now available with Apple TV, and he's considering it, mainly because it has some sports packages," said Andrea, a mother of four who recently completely cut the cord.

When it came to news -- whether streamed or viewed on pay-TV or over the air -- some of the millennial-aged panelists said they rarely watch even traditional broadcast news, and instead are getting their information through social media feeds or other means.

"I rarely watch live news anymore because it's all fed to me via Facebook," said Alicia, a cord-cutter and mother of two.

Ian, a millennial who recently moved to New York, agreed. "I hate watching news in the morning … everything is sent directly to you on Facebook or any major site you go to," he said.

That might be bad news for NewsON, a streaming app that launched back in November on Roku, iOS and Android devices and aggregates live streams from 138 local TV stations in 97 U.S. broadcast markets. "It is a very tough challenge to get the word out to consumers with so many options for them to consider," NewsON head of marketing Derek Van Nostran told FierceOnlineVideo.

Solving that dilemma of getting found, recognized, and most importantly, viewed by consumers is a strategic challenge for OTT providers of all sizes.

"Our best avenue for promotion is from our partner stations through on-air mentions, promos and digital banners," van Nostran said. "Our other promotional efforts include paid media buys through digital channels including Facebook and Google and we use social media, PR and our own assets to get the word out."

Other niche providers are getting creative, leveraging viral videos and even engaging target communities to get the buy-in they need. For example, TV4 Entertainment, which aims to identify underserved and underrepresented communities, engages with both its creators and its viewers. "Everyone behind and in front of the camera is 100 percent dedicated to our vertical. We learned that the hard way," said George Blue, president of client partnerships and advertising sales. TV4 also creates joint ventures with production companies with whom it wants to launch a channel -- such as Undisputed Network, which covers the boxing community. "It's almost easier to start when you have a passionate community already," he said.

PBS, on the other hand, has had to develop its PBS Anywhere service with both its audience and its member stations in mind. "PBS is less revenue motivated than other OTT providers; we have to keep the audience and our member stations in mind and serve both," said Don Wilcox, VP of digital marketing and services, in the panel session.

Grabbing the attention of young-adult viewers has been a challenge for PBS Anywhere; the app was eventually pulled from Xbox because of lack of interest among console users. "Xbox is dead to us," Wilcox joked. "We were not getting viewership." However, the app is getting good traction on Roku, and PBS is aiming at smart TVs as another venue for the app.

Furthermore, viewership and engagement are catching on. Wilcox noted that about 6 percent of the PBS audience watches online. And while the OTT audience in general is perceived as young, "there's a huge segment of the audience that are cord shavers by necessity," he said. "The measurement is almost barbell-shaped."

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