European TV aims to build a Hulu to fend off the Netflix and Amazon threat
For the past two decades, Spain's state-run RTVE and private rivals Mediaset España and Atresmedia have been fighting for viewers' hearts with slates of game shows, sports, comedies, and glossy morning news.
Now, in a plot twist worthy of the steamiest soap opera, they've decided to hook up: this summer the adversaries are launching LovesTV, a shared 18-channel streaming platform with programming from all three networks.
The goal is to "aggregate broadcasters and serve as a common entry point into the digital world", says Arturo Larraínzar, strategy director at Atresmedia.
A similar script is playing out across Europe, as long- standing foes in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy set aside rivalries to co-produce programmes or offer shows online. The reason: interlopers from across the Atlantic.
Netflix this year is doubling its European programming budget to $1bn (€850,000); Amazon will soon have at least a dozen original series from Europe, up from one in 2014. And Home Box Office is boosting its non-US offerings this year by 40pc, to 250 hours of shows. These newcomers could spur a mass defection of viewers to the increasingly more convenient web, and Europe's traditional broadcasters are scrambling to find a response.
"Consumers no longer care where they watch our content, so why should we still draw strict lines between linear and non-linear, offline and online?" asks Bert Habets, chief executive officer of RTL Group, a traditional broadcaster that's launched streaming sites in France, Germany, and four other countries.
"It's confusing to have a different app for every network."
The model the Europeans say they're emulating is Hulu, the US streaming service owned by perennial antagonists Comcast, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, and Walt Disney. Since its launch in 2007, Hulu has grown to 20 million subscribers, who pay $8 to $40 (€34) a month for access to hundreds of shows.
Just as the US networks have gone online to hold on to America's 120 million TV-watching households - and the ad dollars they represent - so European companies say they can build a simple video platform to keep viewers from clicking away.
"People want this overriding interface," says Alan Wolk, co-founder of media analysis website TVRev. "It's confusing to have a different app for every network."
Building a Hulu in Europe, with its dozens of languages and patchwork of regulations, will be trickier than in the US. Broadcast rights for most shows are sold country by country, so it's difficult to put together a seamless service for the entire region.
Different rules about storing recorded shows in the cloud - France, for instance, has more relaxed guidelines than the UK - could be a roadblock. And regulators in Germany and the UK, citing anti-trust concerns, have blocked broadcasters' efforts to co-operate.
"I don't think it's going to be simple to do a pan-European play," says John Turner, a partner at media adviser OC&C Strategy Consultants.
That hasn't stopped the broadcasters from trying. In recent months, ProSiebenSat.1 Media, in Germany, has teamed up with Discovery - which owns the popular Eurosport franchise - to create a service called 7TV, and the two are seeking partners in other countries. Britain's media regulator has encouraged a similar alliance between the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4. Spain's LovesTV will offer livestreams of all three of its networks and allow viewers to see the past week's shows to catch up on episodes they may have missed.
The American upstarts are also spurring erstwhile rivals to sacrifice exclusivity and share costs. The BBC and Channel 4 have teamed up with Hulu and AMC Network Entertainment. And public broadcasters in France, Germany, and Italy have agreed to co-operate on what they call "bigger" shows; they say they'd welcome companies in other countries as well. "If we pool our resources, we can have a strong voice on the international scene," says Delphine Ernotte, head of France Télévisions.
Even with shared resources, they're likely to lose some premier programming to the cash-rich Americans. Industry insiders say Netflix spent about $7m (€5.9m) per episode of 'The Crown', roughly five times what ITV - the UK's biggest commercial broadcaster - paid for 'Downton Abbey' (though the company doesn't release figures for its shows). With so much money available, "screenwriters and directors increasingly want to work with the multinationals," says Karin von Abrams, an analyst at researcher EMarketer. "The funding is better, and they can actually see their projects become reality."
The broadcasters will find themselves in competition with homegrown rivals such as the TVPlayer platform in the UK - part- owned by Hearst Communications and Walt Disney - and French startup Molotov. The two-year-old company has signed up five million users with its Netflix-like interface offering three dozen channels for free and premium bundles starting at €4 a month.
Molotov founder Jean-David Blanc says he's in talks with British, German, Italian, and Spanish companies to expand into those countries.
"The content providers, the producers, they want to maximise their chances to find their audience," he says.
"So the world is changing, obviously." (Bloomberg Businessweek)