Are Niche Streaming Services Sustainable?

Can small streamers compete in a land of giants?

Streaming’s chattering classes (your correspondent included) tend to focus on Netflix, Hulu, and the other big premium streaming services. It’s just easier to cover streaming mega-corporations. But what about the smaller, more specialized streaming services? One report found that subscriptions at these niche players during the pandemic grew more than twice as much as the big players. So let’s take a look at the strategies the small fish use to swim with the big fish.

In this issue:

  • Serving niche customers everywhere - going beyond streaming

  • Sticking to your knitting - don’t try to do everything

  • Be the platform - one technology, multiple services

Running your own race

Naturally, serving niche viewers requires serving up content those viewers want to watch. CuriosityStream’s strategy has been consistent since its launch in 2015: stream quality fact-based content for people interested in science, nature, history, and culture.

Writing on the company’s blog in 2021, Chief Product Officer Devin Emery called this “running your own race.” CuriosityStream is not trying to be all things to all people or compete head-to-head with Netflix. It instead acquires or produces content with a laser focus on its niche.

Running its own race attracts customers who stick around. More than 85% of CuriosityStream direct subscribers are on the annual plan. As a result, its churn rates are much lower than all-things-to-all-people streamers like Netflix.

While content matters, part of that stickiness is due to CuriosityStream’s pricing structure. Its month-to-month plan is about a third of the cost of the big streamers, and annual plans deliver 35-40% discounts. CuriosityStream also offers its Smart Bundle, which includes more nonfiction content from sources like Tastemade, One Day University, and Nebula.

The 360-degree flywheel

Another approach is to go all-in on serving your niche, as demonstrated by the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. Sure, it benefits from having Sony as a corporate parent, but the streamer’s version of fan service came long before Sony’s takeover.

Crunchyroll’s president Rahul Purini calls it their “360-degree flywheel approach”. Yes, having the largest library of new and catalog anime content is the core service. But rather than just streaming video, the company serves more than 10 million anime fans across multiple sales channels:

  • Theatrical distribution

  • Cons, expos and other live events

  • Merchandise

  • Mobile gaming

  • Anime music streaming

No matter where anime fans want to spend money, Crunchyroll is there with the products, services, and experiences they want.

Arthouse film streamer Mubi is heading down this path, its founder Efe Çakarel explained to audiences at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The company recently purchased a European film sales and distribution firm with a global footprint, allowing it to expand theatrical distribution beyond the United Kingdom and the United States. Mubi is also opening its own arthouse cinemas to showcase independent films. The first will open in Mexico City with two screens for feature films and spaces for video art installations.

Managing a portfolio

Another niche-optimized strategy is to build a solid streaming technology platform to make smaller audiences more profitable. This is the approach that AMC Networks has taken with its streaming operations. AMC’s streaming portfolio includes horror source Shudder, arthouse services Sundance Now and IFC Films Unlimited, Acorn TV’s content from across the British Empire, all-African American streamer allblk, and the anime service HIDIVE.

On AMC Network’s most recent earnings call, CEO Kristin Dolan said, “We really have a different sort of economic structure with our services that are more targeted towards specific genres and specific types of subscribers… our overall goal is to just make sure that we can serve avid fans with significant valuable content. So high-quality subscribers equals lower churn, less price sensitivity, if they’re pleased with the product.”

You can see the same strategy in place at Cineverse, which operates specialty streaming services Fandor, Screambox, and Dove. The company also offers its own-brand streaming service with licensed content as well as content from its FAST channels like CONtv, El Rey Networks, and Comedy Dynamics.

Cineverse president Erick Opeka explained to analysts, “The engagement and loyalty of enthusiast consumers that are invested in personal fandoms will ultimately lead to lower long-term churn rates and brand loyalty, as has been proven in our order-based verticals.”

Our takeaway: Sometimes smaller is better

Of course, every niche streamer is trying to run its own race. The question is whether the race is sustainable. All of the industry trends plaguing the big streamers still apply. Producing original content is expensive, investors want profits over subscribers, advertisers aren’t spending, and the ongoing strikes aren’t helping.

However, a dedicated fan base can buffer companies from financial headwinds. Cineverse’s ad revenue rose in a declining market. AMC Network’s streaming ad sales softened the blow from its weakening linear TV business. Mubi, Crunchyroll, and CuriosityStream focus on content not covered by the actors’ and writers’ unions.

I think every niche streamer is positioned to benefit if the strikes continue into the fall. People aren’t going to find as much fresh content as they’re used to. Consumers will be likelier to try a streaming service that caters to their particular interests. The catch is, people have to know these niche services exist.

Let’s hear from you. Are you into niche streaming?

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The Watchlist

Killing It returns for a second season on Peacock, streaming now.

Streaming outside of the US or just want to protect your internet privacy? With AtlasVPN, you’ll be able to surf the internet feeling safe and secure. Get 85% off their 2-year plan when you sign up with our code.

Tracy Morgan is back with another standup special. Takin’ It Too Far is available to watch on Max.

The Monkey King swings onto Netflix, Friday, August 18th.

Lucy Hale and Grant Gustin become dog parents in Puppy Love, streaming on Freevee, Friday, August 18th.

A snowy resort weekend getaway takes a turn for the worst in Bad Things, coming to Shudder, Friday, August 18th.

The Clone Wars story is not over yet. Disney+’s Ahsoka hits the streamer with two premiere episodes on Wednesday, Aug 23rd.

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