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How to Identify Any Song Using Your Phone

By Simon Hill
Need help naming that tune? Try asking Google Assistant, Siri, or Shazam.

The Best TV Streaming Devices for Cord Cutters

By Medea Giordano, Jeffrey Van Camp
We've tested dozens of devices for watching stuff on 4K or HD TVs. These are our favorites.

Streamers are boycotting Twitch today to protest the platform’s lack of action on ‘hate raids’

By Amanda Silberling

Over the last month, Twitch users have become increasingly concerned and frustrated with bot-driven hate raids. To protest Twitch’s lack of immediate action to prevent targeted harassment of marginalized creators, some streamers are going dark to observe #ADayOffTwitch today.

Per the protest, users are sharing a list of demands for the Amazon-owned Twitch. They want the platform to host a roundtable with creators affected by hate raids, allow streamers to approve or deny incoming raids, enable tools to only allow accounts of a certain age to chat, remove the ability to attach more than three accounts to one email address, and share a timeframe for when comprehensive anti-harassment tools will be implemented.

Hey friendos, I won’t be streaming tomorrow in support of #ADayOffTwitch. (Here’s a handy graphic of some of the things those protesting are asking of @Twitch in case you’re not familiar with what’s going on.) I’ll be back on Thursday for our first swing at Senior Detective! 💜pic.twitter.com/OA9NQlTnq3

— Meg Turney (@megturney) September 1, 2021

TechCrunch asked Twitch if it has plans to address these demands. Twitch responded with a statement: “We support our streamers’ rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service. No one should have to experience malicious and hateful attacks based on who they are or what they stand for, and we are working hard on improved channel-level ban evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”

Twitch Raids are a part of the streaming platform’s culture — after one creator ends their stream, they can “raid” another stream by sending their viewers over to check out someone else’s channel. This feature is supposed to help more seasoned streamers support up-and-comers, but instead, it’s been weaponized as a tool for harassment.

In May, Twitch launched 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race and ability, which users requested so that they could more easily find creators that represent them. But at the same time, these tags made it easier for bad actors to harass marginalized streamers, and Twitch hasn’t yet added tools for streamers to deal with increased harassment. In the meantime, Twitch users have had to take matters into their own hands and build their own safety tools to protect themselves while Twitch works on its updates. Twitch hasn’t shared when its promised anti-harassment tools will go live.  

As recently as December, Twitch updated its policies on hateful content and harassment, which the platform said have always been prohibited, yet vicious attacks have continued. After facing targeted, racist hate raids on their streams, a Black Twitch creator RekItRaven started the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag on Twitter in early August, calling out Twitch for its failure to prevent this abuse. While Twitch is aware of the issue and said it’s working on solutions, many users find Twitch’s response to be too slow and lacking.

We've been building channel-level ban evasion detection and account improvements to combat this malicious behavior for months. However, as we work on solutions, bad actors work in parallel to find ways around them—which is why we can't always share details.

— Twitch (@Twitch) August 20, 2021

Along with streamers LuciaEverblack and ShineyPen, RekItRaven organized #ADayOffTwitch to put pressure on Twitch to make its platform safer for marginalized creators.

“Hate on the platform is not new,” Raven told WYNC’s The Takeaway. But bot-driven raid attacks are more difficult to combat than individual trolls. “I’ve had people come in with bots. It’s usually one or two people who program a bunch of bots, you bypass security measures that are put in place and just spam a broadcaster’s chat with very inflammatory, derogatory language.”

While Raven said they have since had a discussion with Twitch, they don’t feel that one conversation is enough.

Turns out a bunch of LGBTQUIA2+, BIPOC, Disabled, Neurodivergent, and Plural creators really can make a difference by showing up, being loud, and not backing down despite people telling us we won't accomplish anything. Just remember, we aren't done yet. #ADayOffTwitch

— Lucia Everblack (@LuciaEverblack) August 26, 2021

As part of #ADayOffTwitch, some streamers are encouraging their followers to support them financially on other platforms through the #SubOffTwitch tag. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ revenue, so creators are promoting their accounts on platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, which take a much smaller cut. Though competitor YouTube Gaming takes 30% of revenue, and Facebook Gaming won’t take a cut from creators until 2023, Twitch remains dominant in the streaming space. According to Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch represented 72.3% of the market share in terms of viewership Q1 2021.

Still, popular creators like Ben Lupo (DrLupo), Jack Dunlop (CouRage), and Rachell Hofstetter (Valkyrae) have recently left Twitch for exclusive deals with YouTube Gaming. If Twitch remains unsafe for marginalized creators, others might be swayed to follow their lead, exclusive deals or not.

YouTube to roll out picture-in-picture viewing for all US iOS users, starting with Premium subscribers

By Amanda Silberling

Though YouTube has supported picture-in-picture viewing on Android devices since 2018, YouTube told TechCrunch today that it plans to launch the feature to all iOS users in the U.S. on both iPhone and iPad. For now, YouTube is inviting Premium subscribers to test this feature, which lets users watch picture-in-picture videos in a mini player while browsing other apps. The testing period for Premium users ends on October 31, but YouTube does not have a timeline to share for when all U.S. iOS users will gain access to the feature.

Though this is a mobile feature, Premium subscribers must enable the ability to test it via the YouTube experiments website on the desktop. Last year, YouTube made opting into experiments a Premium perk.

If you scroll down on the experiments website, you’ll see “Picture-in picture on iOS” with the option to try it. Then, if you watch a video on the YouTube app, you should see a picture-in-picture display of the video when you navigate out of the app.

Image Credits: Screenshots obtained by TechCrunch

Once viewing a video via picture-in-picture, you can adjust where the video appears on your screen and how big it is. When you tap on the video, you’ll return to the YouTube app. If you lock your phone, the video will pause.

Some users have reported that you might need to delete and reinstall the YouTube app to get it to work.

This feature is different from existing picture-in-picture functionality on the YouTube iOS app because it allows you to continue watching a video even while navigating elsewhere on your phone. Similar features already exist on streaming apps like Netflix.

Hulu launches support for HDR on select original content

By Amanda Silberling

For the first time, Hulu has started adding support for HDR viewing, years after some of its competitors. The gradual rollout of HDR support began on August 19, Hulu told TechCrunch, and should be available to all users with HDR-compatible devices in the coming days.

So far, Hulu has only enabled HDR viewing on high-profile original content, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Nine Perfect Strangers,” but the streaming service said that it will continue adding HDR support to both new and existing content over time.

If a viewer is using an HDR-compatible device, a badge will appear on a show’s details page, indicating that it can be streamed in HDR. Per Hulu’s support page — which is where users spotted the feature’s quiet rollout — HDR content on the Hulu app is supported with HDR-compatible models of Roku, Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Cube, Apple TV 4K, Vizio, and Chromecast Ultra. Hulu told TechCrunch that “it is recommended that viewers update their devices to the latest version for the best experience.”

Hulu has historically been slower than its competitors to enable support for technology like HDR, which provides an enhanced viewing experience. HDR isn’t a resolution like 4K, but rather, it creates a more natural-looking image by expanding its contrast ratio and color palette. YouTube rolled out HDR support in 2016, while Amazon and Netflix enabled the feature within the previous year. Though Disney+ and Hulu share a parent company in Disney, Disney+ has already supported HDR for some of its content.

Some streaming services like Netflix offer pricier monthly subscription plans for access to HD or Ultra HD content, but as of now, Hulu doesn’t charge a premium for access to higher-quality streaming.

Netflix sets ‘Tudum,’ its first virtual global fan event, for September 25

By Aisha Malik

Netflix has announced Tudum, a global virtual fan event set for September 25 that will showcase exclusive news and first looks at some of the streaming giant’s original content. Tudum, which is named after the sound users hear when they press play on Netflix, will feature stars and creators from over 70 Netflix series, films and specials.

“It’s our first-ever global Tudum event, and our goal is simple: to entertain and honor Netflix fans from across the globe,” a spokesperson for Netflix told TechCrunch in an email.

There’s only one place to see your favorite stars reveal exclusive first looks of Netflix’s biggest shows and films… #TUDUM: A Global Fan Event is coming September 25 pic.twitter.com/moXnYqtxOD

— Netflix (@netflix) August 25, 2021

The event will feature interactive panels and conversations with the creators and stars of some of Netflix’s most popular shows, including “Stranger Things,” “Emily in Paris,” “The Witcher,” “The Crown,” “Cobra Kai” and “Bridgerton.” Netflix will also feature some of its popular films including “Red Notice,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Extraction,” “The Harder They Fall,” “The Old Guard” and more.

Netflix is among several other major companies that have started hosting their own virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift toward livestreamed programming. Disney+, for instance, held a special event to honor National Streaming Day earlier this year in May. These types of events are becoming the new way for companies to showcase their original content, whereas in previous years they would do so at various in-person fan conventions.

With this new fan event and other similar ones such as Geeked Week, Netflix is no longer relying on other programming or conventions to promote its original content as it can now host its own events. Tudum also seems to be a way for Netflix to acquire more subscribers by promoting popular returning shows and teasing upcoming content.

The virtual livestream for the three-hour Tudum event starts at 12 p.m. EDT/9 a.m. PDT on Saturday, September 25. The event will be broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Netflix is also hosting special pre-shows to showcase its Korean and Indian original series and films along with its anime content at 8 a.m. EDT/5 a.m. PDT.

Netflix’s event announcement comes as the streaming giant has spent the past year expanding its service and adding new features. Recently, the platform has launched a new “Play Something” shuffle feature, a new section to help users track upcoming releases and a new “Downloads For You” feature that automatically downloads content you’ll like. In terms of the future, Netflix has said its gaming push will begin with mobile and that it plans to bring spatial audio to the platform’s iPhone and iPad apps.

Digital locker app Movies Anywhere adds AI-powered lists to organize your library

By Sarah Perez

Movies Anywhere, an app that allows you to centralize your digital movie collection from across services, is rolling out a new feature that will help you make better sense of your growing library. The company today introduced an AI-powered feature called “My Lists,” which automatically groups movies together based on any number of factors — like genre, actors, franchise, theme and more.

For digital movie collectors with larger libraries, the feature could make browsing through the available options feel more like scrolling through the recommendations you’d find on a modern-day streaming service, like Netflix. That is, instead of scrolling down through endless pages showing you all your purchased movies in order of purchase or alphabetically, as before, you can now quickly scan rows where the content is organized in ways that make it easier to discover what’s actually in your library.

For example, if you had purchased all the movies from a particular franchise, they would now be on their own row together. This is an improvement over how you had to locate these movies in your collection before — where they’d be sandwiched between the other titles you bought in between the franchise purchases.

You may also discover that you own a lot of movies within a particular category, like “Action Thrillers,” or those with a central theme, like “strong female friendships,” which could help you narrow down your movie night selection.

These algorithmically created lists can also be edited, allowing you to add or remove titles — or even delete the list altogether.

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

Plus, you can now make lists of your own, too. So you could make a list of favorites, movies you want to watch with your family, or however else you want to further organize your collection. You could even use the feature to make a “to watch” list of movies you’ve purchased, but hadn’t yet made time for.

The Movie Anywhere app has been around for years, but is now jointly operated by Disney, Universal, WB, Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox, after migrating to a new platform back in 2017. Its biggest selling point for digital movie collectors is that you can in one place get to all the movies you bought from various services. That includes digital downloads offered by iTunes, Vudu, Prime Video, YouTube, Xfinity and others. Before, you would have to switch from app to app to figure out if you had ever purchased a given title.

My Lists is one of many features the company has added over time to keep its app feeling current. Last year, for instance, it introduced a digital movie lending feature called Screen Pass, and it earlier had launched a co-watching feature called Watch Together, which let users watch with up to nine friends.

The new My Lists is available today in the Movies Anywhere mobile app, desktop and on streaming devices from the navigation bar.

SiriusXM launches ‘TikTok Radio,’ a music channel featuring viral hits hosted by TikTok stars

By Amanda Silberling

If viral TikTok songs like Dr. Dog’s “Where’d All the Time Go?” or Bo Burnham’s “Bezos I” weren’t already stuck in your head on loop, now they could be. Today SiriusXM launched a TikTok Radio channel, which features TikTok creators as channel hosts. The station is designed to sound like a “radio version of the platform’s ‘For You’ feed,” Sirius XM said.

SiriusXM, parent company to Pandora, announced this music channel in May, teasing the launch with curated Pandora playlists from influencers like Bella Poarch, whose lipsync video of Millie B’s “Soph Aspin Send [M to the B]” is the most liked video on TikTok.

With its TikTok partnership, SiriusXM is looking to capture a younger audience — on the TikTok app itself, DJ Habibeats (@djhabibeats) and DJ CONST (@erinconstantineofficial) will each go live on TikTok each week while DJing on TikTok Radio. Other creator hosts on TikTok Radio — like Billy (@8illy), Cat Haley (@itscathaley), HINDZ (@hindzsight), Lamar Dawson (@dirrtykingofpop), and Taylor Cassidy (@taylorcassidyj) — will deliver “The TikTok Radio Trending Ten,” a weekly countdown of songs trending on TikTok. To promote the station during its first week, artists like Ed Sheeran, Lil Nas X, and Normani will appear on air.

Music has such a strong footing in TikTok culture that it regularly influences the Billboard charts — Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” originally released in 1978,” appeared in the top 10 Billboard albums again in 2020 after it was featured in a viral TikTok. Even a Fortnite-themed parody of Estelle’s “American Boy” — originally uploaded in 2018 to YouTube  — had a beautiful moment on TikTok. 

“We’re so excited to launch TikTok Radio on SiriusXM, which opens up artists and creators like this amazing group of hosts to new audiences,” said Ole Obermann, TikTok’s Global Head of Music, in a statement. “Now SiriusXM subscribers will have a new road to discover the latest trends in music and get a first listen to tomorrow’s musical superstars. The channel captures song-breaking music culture that creates so much joy and entertainment on TikTok through video in an all-audio format.”

Though SiriusXM’s subscriber base continues to expand — it saw a 34% year-over-year growth from last year to now — it still dwarfs in comparison to streaming giants like Spotify, which has 165 million paid users. SiriusXM reported a total of 34.5 million subscribers as of Q2 this year, the most it’s ever had, but even Apple Music and Amazon Music have reported nearly double the subscribers. Pandora has 6.5 million paid subscribers. Over the last few years, SiriusXM and Pandora have struck deals with companies like SoundCloud, Simplecast and Stitcher to become more competitive in both music and podcast streaming. 

Still, other streaming companies have also shown interest in the market of Gen Z-ers on TikTok who want to listen to full versions of the catchy songs they hear in short videos. Apple Music and Spotify both host curated “viral hits” playlists. But a full-time satellite music channel is taking the trend a step further.

Spotify to spend $1B buying its own stock

By Alex Wilhelm

Music streaming service Spotify today said it will spend up to $1 billion between now and April 21, 2026 to repurchase its own shares. The dollar amount represents just under 2.5% of Spotify’s market cap, with the company valued at $41.06 billion this morning as its shares rose 5.1% following the repurchase news.

The company previously executed a similar buyback program in 2018.

A public company using some of its cash to repurchase its shares is nothing new. Many public companies, including Apple, Alphabet, and Microsoft, have active share repurchase programs, and it is common to see mature or nearly-mature companies devoting a fraction of their balance sheet or a regular percentage of their free cash flow to buying back their own equity.

The goal of such efforts is to return cash to shareholders. Buybacks, along with dividends, are among the key ways that companies can use their wealth to reward shareholders. Also, by buying their own stock, companies can boost the value of their individual shares. By limiting the shares in circulation, the company’s share count declines and the value of each share consequently rises, in theory, as it represents a larger fraction of ownership in the corporation.

Spotify shares have traded as high as $387.44 apiece in the past 12 months, but are now worth just $215.84, inclusive of today’s gains. From that perspective, seeing Spotify decide to deploy some cash to repurchase its own equity makes sense — the company is buying low.

But if you ask a recently public company what it intends to do with its excess cash, buybacks are not usually the answer. For example, TechCrunch asked Root Insurance CEO Alex Timm if his company intended to use cash reserves to purchase its own equity after its recent Q2 2021 earnings report. Root’s share price has declined in recent months, perhaps making it an attractive time to reward shareholders through buybacks. Timm demurred on the idea, saying instead that his company is building for the long-term. That translates to: That cash is earmarked for growth, not shareholder return.

But isn’t Spotify still a growth company? It certainly isn’t valued on the weight of its profits. In the first half of 2021, for example, Spotify posted net profit of a mere €3 million on revenues of €4.5 billion.

If Spotify is still a growth-focused company, shouldn’t it preserve its capital to invest in exclusive podcasts and the like — efforts that may grant it pricing power in the future and allow for stronger revenue growth and gross margins over time?

To answer that, we’ll have to check the company’s balance sheet. From its Q2 2021 earnings, here are the key numbers:

  • Spotify closed out the second quarter with “€3.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents, restricted cash, and short term investments.”
  • And in the second quarter, Spotify generated free cash flow of €34 million. That figure was up €7 million from a year earlier despite “higher working capital needs arising from select licensor payments (delayed from Q1), podcast-related payments, and higher ad-receivables”.

More simply, despite paying up for efforts that are generally understood to be key to Spotify’s long-term ability to improve its gross margins — and therefore its net profitability — the company is still throwing off cash. And with a huge bank account earning little, thanks to globally low prices for cash and equivalent holdings, Spotify is using a chunk of its funds to buy back stock.

By spending $1 billion over the next few years, Spotify won’t materially harm its cash position. Indeed, it will remain incredibly cash-rich. However, the move may help defend its valuation and keep itchy investors happy. Moreover, as the company is buying its stock at a firm discount to where the market valued it recently, it could get something akin to a deal, given Spotify’s long-term faith in the value of its own business.

Perhaps the better question as this juncture is not whether Spotify is a weird company for deciding to break off a piece of its wealth for shareholders, but instead why we aren’t seeing other breakeven-ish tech companies with neutral cash flows and fat accounts doing the same.

Spatial audio is coming to Netflix on iPhone and iPad

By Amanda Silberling

If you use AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, your mobile Netflix-watching is about to get a bit more immersive. Yesterday, Netflix confirmed that it has begun rolling out spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14 after the feature was spotted by a Reddit user.

Netflix joins streaming competitors like HBO Max, Disney+, and Peacock in enabling this feature, while other popular apps like Amazon Prime Video and YouTube still don’t have this functionality. Still, Netflix said the rollout won’t be immediate — users who have the update should be able to toggle it on or off in the Control Center.

Recently, Apple has been emphasizing its spatial audio features. The company first announced that it would bring spatial audio to AirPods Pro during the WWDC conference in 2020 — during this year’s conference, Apple added that Apple Music subscribers would gain access to spatial audio and lossless audio streaming at no extra charge. This even supports dynamic head tracking, which adjusts the sound when you move your head.  The Android version of the Apple Music app also supports spatial and lossless audio. In February, Spotify said it would rollout a high-end subscription service, Spotify HiFi, which would enable lossless audio, though there’s been no news since.

Last month, Netflix revealed that it start looking toward mobile gaming in addition to its original movies and television series. The company has already experimented with interactive entertainment with projects like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its Stranger Things games.

“We view gaming as another new content category for us, similar to our expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV,” the company said in its quarterly earnings report.

Spatial audio is popular among video game players — so while this update will enhance the streaming video experience on iPhone and iPad, perhaps we’ll see this feature at play in eventual Netflix mobile games, too.

Social listening app Earbuds raises $3 million in Series A funding

By Amanda Silberling

Most startup origin stories don’t begin on an NFL field, but that’s where founder, CEO and offensive tackle Jason Fox conceptualized the idea behind Earbuds. As he watched first overall draft pick Cam Newton warm up before a game in 2011, dancing to music, Fox couldn’t help but wonder what the future NFL MVP was listening to — and he bet that the crowd of 85,000 fans were curious too.

Ten years later, Earbuds has raised a $3 million Series A round for its social listening app, led by Ecliptic Capital with additional investment from the Andre Agassi Foundation and LFG Ventures.

Since its launch in 2019, Earbuds has allowed users — whether they’re famous artists, NFL stars or ordinary people — to share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ and comment on other people’s music picks. Some notable figures on the app include the artist Nelly and professional quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, the highest-paid player in the NFL. Mayfield and Mahomes are also investors in the app.

With this recent raise, Fox and his team of six plan to expand the app to add creator monetization tools, incentivizing people to use the app. Plus, Earbuds also announced that it hired two former product and engineering leaders from Apple, David Ransom and Sean Moubry, who joined Earbuds as head of Product and head of Engineering, respectively. Tech veteran Drew Larner also came aboard as a senior advisor and investor — in 2015, he sold the streaming app Rdio to Pandora. Pandora was then sold to Sirius XM for $3.5 billion in 2018.

Image Credits: Earbuds’ interface allows users to search for athlete accounts/Earbuds.

To use Earbuds, users must have a paid account on Spotify or Apple Music. Soon, Fox says, Earbuds should have integrations with paid versions of Amazon Music and Pandora, too. These integrations are how the app, available on both iOS and Android, is able to source music for streaming. But regardless of which platform a listener uses, they can still take advantage of the social features on Earbuds, listening along to live playlists and commenting along with other listeners.

When you connect your account, you’re able to easily import your existing playlists. Then, on the app, you can add voice clips to comment on your song choices. When listening to a stream, users have the option to save the playlist to their streaming service or share it as an Instagram story.

Fox declined to share monthly active user numbers, but expressed confidence that soliciting users from other streaming platforms’ existing subscriber base won’t be a big hurdle for user acquisition; when it comes to paid streaming music subscribers, Spotify has 165 million users, Apple Music has at least 60 million and Amazon music has at least 55 million.

“We want to continue to add additional streaming partners to accommodate everyone. We want to connect with all users regardless of what platform they use,” Fox said.

Image Credits: Earbuds founder and CEO Jason Fox/Earbuds.

Fox wants more musical artists to use the app, but given his background as an NFL player, much of the company’s existing marketing has been targeted toward athletes and sports fans — a particularly interesting potential market for Earbuds is NCAA athletes, who are newly able to monetize their image and likeness. 

“You’ve got the quarterback before the big rivalry game, and they want to be able to monetize the fans while they’re listening to music and getting amped up with them before the game,” Fox explained.

Since these monetization tools haven’t rolled out yet, there’s currently no in-app purchases available on Earbuds. This would give Earbuds, which isn’t yet profitable, another income stream. So far, the app has made money through in-app sponsored posts from partners like the NBA, the NFL playoffs, smart speaker companies and beverage companies.

“We can continue to do that, but we feel like the majority of growth and revenue moving forward will be through partnerships, integrations and supporting the creator economy,” Fox said. Currently, Earbuds has a partnership with Apple Music, so if someone subscribes to the platform via Earbuds, Earbuds gets a cut of their subscription payment.

As streaming services like Spotify grow, social listening apps like Earbuds are emerging too. Spotify itself has rolled out more social listening features lately, including a Music + Talk platform similar to Earbuds’ existing offerings.

There could be more to the Salesforce+ video streaming service than meets the eye

By Ron Miller

When Salesforce announced its new business video streaming service called Salesforce+ this week, everyone had a reaction. While not all of it was positive, some company watchers also wondered if there was more to this announcement than meets the eye.

If you look closely, the new initiative suggests that Salesforce wants to take a bite out of LinkedIn and other SaaS content platforms and publishers. The video streaming service could be a launch point for a broader content platform, where its partners are producing their own content and using Salesforce+ infrastructure to help them advertise to and cultivate their own customers.

The company has, after all, done exactly this sort of thing with its online marketplaces and industry events to great success. Salesforce generated almost $6 billion in its most recent quarterly earnings report. That mostly comes from selling its sales, marketing and service software, not any kind of content production, but it has lots of experience putting on Dreamforce, its massive annual customer event, as well as smaller events throughout the year around the world.

The video streaming service could be a launch point for a broader content platform, where its partners are producing their own content and using Salesforce+ infrastructure to help them advertise to and cultivate their own customers.

On its face, Salesforce+ is a giant, ambitious and quite expensive content marketing play. The company reportedly has hired a large professional staff to produce and manage the content, and built a broadcasting and production studio designed to produce quality shows in-house. It believes that by launching with content from Dreamforce, its highly successful customer conference, attended by tens of thousands people every year pre-pandemic, it can prime the viewing pump and build audience momentum that way, perhaps even using celebrities as it often does at its events to drive audience. It is less clear about the long-term business goals.

Disney+ beats expectations to reach 116 million subscribers in Q3

By Sarah Perez

Disney’s streaming service is seeing improved growth, after initially seeing slower numbers of subscriber additions in Q2 as Covid lockdowns and mask mandates came to an end. Today, Disney+ beat analyst expectations for subscriber growth in Disney’s blowout third quarter, reaching 116 million paid subscribers — above the 114.5 million Wall Street had expected — and up over 100% year-over-year.

Disney also topped expectations across the board, with $17.02 billion in revenue versus the $16.76 billion expected, and earnings per share of 80 cents, above analysts’ expectations of 55 cents. Even Disney Parks were back in business. 

The pandemic had thrown a wrench in forecasting growth metrics across a number of industries, streaming included. Although Disney+ has well-established itself as one of the few competitors capable of challenging Netflix in an increasingly crowded market, it has seen some ups and downs due to Covid impacts. In the earlier days of the pandemic, streaming was on the rise. This March, Disney+ passed 100 million subscribers after just 16 months of operation. At the time, Disney execs said the service was on track to meet its projections of 260 million subscribers by 2024.

But in Disney’s second quarter earnings, the economy’s re-opening impacted Disney+ numbers, as people finally had more to do than just sit at home, and vaccinations become more widely available. Then, Disney+ only reached 103.6 million subscribers, when analysts were expecting 109.3 million, and the stock slipped as a result.

Disney wasn’t alone in feeling the impacts of Covid-induced lumpiness in subscriber additions. Netflix had also seen slower subscriber growth earlier in the year due to Covid and its far-reaching effects on things like production delays and release schedules.

But Netflix’s most recent quarter, where it once again topped subscriber estimates, had hinted that Disney+ may see a similar boost. Aiding in that growth, was Disney+’s recent market expansions in Asia. Disney+ Hotstar, arrived in Malaysia and Thailand in June, after prior launches in India and Indonesia last year.

The Hotstar version of Disney+, however, led to lowered average monthly revenue per user (ARPU) in the quarter due to its lower price points. In Q3, ARPU declined from $4.62 to $4.16 due to a higher mix of Disney+ Hotstar subscribers compared with the prior-year quarter, Disney said.

Disney’s other streaming services, Hulu and ESPN+, didn’t see the same trend.

Hulu’s subscription video service jumped from $11.39 to $13.15 year-over-year and its Live TV service (+SVOD) grew from $68.11 to $84.09. ESPN+ also grew from $4.18 to $4.47.

Subscriber growth also increased across the services, with ESPN+ growing 75% year-over-year to reach 14.9 million customers and total Hulu subscribers growing 21% to reach 42.8 million.

“…Our direct-to-consumer business is performing very well, with a total of nearly 174 million subscriptions across Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu at the end of the quarter, and a host of new content coming to the platform,” noted Disney CEO Bob Chapek in a press release.

Across Disney’s direct-to-consumer business, revenues grew 57% to $4.3 billion and its operating loss declined from $0.6 billion to $0.3 billion, thanks to improved results from Hulu, including subscription growth and higher ad revenues.

These gains were offset by a higher loss at Disney+ attributed to programming, production, marketing and technology costs that were somewhat mitigated by increases in subscription revenues and success of the Disney+ Premier Access release of “Cruella.” (Disney’s fiscal quarter ended July 3, so the impacts of the massive haul that “Black Widow” saw following its U.S. opening — nor the resulting lawsuit from star Scarlett Johansson, for that matter — have yet to be included in these figures.)

 

Medal.tv, a video clipping service for gamers, enters the livestreaming market with Rawa.tv acquisition

By Sarah Perez

Medal.tv, a short-form video clipping service and social network for gamers, is entering the livestreaming market with the acquisition of Rawa.tv, a Twitch rival based in Dubai, which had raised around $1 million to date. The seven-figure, all-cash deal will see two of Rawa’s founders, Raya Dadah and Phil Jammal, now joining Medal, and further integrations between the two platforms going forward.

The Middle East and North African region (MENA) is one of the fastest-growing markets in gaming and still one that’s mostly un-catered to, explained Medal.tv CEO Pim de Witte, as to his company’s interest in Rawa.

“Most companies that target that market don’t really understand the nuances and try to replicate existing Western or Far-Eastern models that are doomed to fail,” he said. “Absorbing a local team will increase Medal’s chances of success here. Overall, we believe that MENA is an underserved market without a clear leader in the livestreaming space, and Rawa brings to Medal the local market expertise that we need to capitalize on this opportunity,” de Witte added.

Medal.tv’s community had been asking for the ability to do livestreaming for some time, the exec also noted, but the technology would have been too expensive for the startup to build using off-the-shelf services at its scale, de Witte said.

“People increasingly connect around live and real-time experiences, and this is something our platform has lacked to date,” he noted.

But Rawa, as the first livestreaming platform dedicated to Arab gaming, had built out its own proprietary live and network streaming technology that’s now used in all its products. That technology is now coming to Medal.tv.

Image Credits: Medal.tv

The two companies were already connected before today, as Rawa users have been able to upload their gaming clips to Medal.tv, and some Rawa partners had joined Medal’s skilled player program. Going forward, Rawa will continue to operate as a separate platform, but it will become more tightly integrated with Medal, the company says. Currently, Rawa sees around 100,000 active users on its service.

The remaining Rawa team will continue to operate the livestreaming platform under co-founder Jammal’s leadership following the deal’s close, and the Rawa HQ will remain based in Dubai. However, Rawa’s employees have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic, and it’s unclear if that will change in the future, given the uncertainty of COVID-19’s spread.

Medal.tv detailed its further plans for Rawa on its site, where the company explained it doesn’t aim to build a “general-purpose” livestreaming platform where the majority of viewers don’t pay — a call-out that clearly seems aimed at Twitch. Instead, it says it will focus on matching content with viewers who would be interested in subscribing to the creators. This addresses one of the challenges that has faced larger platforms like Twitch in the past, where it’s been difficult for smaller streamers to get off the ground.

The company also said it will remain narrowly focused on serving the gaming community as opposed to venturing into non-gaming content, as others have done. Again, this differentiates itself from Twitch which, over the years, expanded into vlogs and even streaming old TV shows. And it’s much different from YouTube or Facebook Watch, where gaming is only a subcategory of a broader video network.

The acquisition follows Medal.tv’s $9 million Series A led by Horizons Ventures in 2019, after the startup had grown to 5 million registered users and “hundreds of thousands” of daily active users. Today, the company says over 200,000 people create content every day on Medal, and 3 million users are actively viewing that content every month.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine sold to new media firm from former Disney execs

By Sarah Perez

Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s media company that has produced content for streaming services like Hulu, Apple and HBO, among others, has been sold to a yet-unnamed new media firm run by former Disney execs, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, the company announced this morning.

The Wall St. Journal first reported on the sale.

Deal terms were not officially disclosed, but reportedly, the sale values Hello Sunshine’s business at around $900 million, The WSJ says. The news outlet had previously reported Hello Sunshine was exploring a sale after receiving interest from a number of suitors, including Apple.

Hello Sunshine was co-founded by Witherspoon and Strand Equity founder and managing partner Seth Rodsky in 2016, and is best known for producing series like HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” and Apple’s “The Morning Show,” which feature Witherspoon in starring roles.

But the company has also invested in other film and media projects, ranging from Facebook Watch series to collaborations with Amazon’s Audible. It now has upcoming film and TV projects on the slate with Netflix, Amazon, ABC and Starz, and recently announced a Kids & Animation division as well as the acquisition of Sara Rea’s SKR Production to expand into unscripted content.

In addition, the company operates an online and mobile book club app, Reese’s Book Club, now with 2.1 million followers. The club’s more popular picks are often turned into the shows and movies Hello Sunshine later produces.

Per Hello Sunshine’s announcement, the company will be the first acquisition by the new media venture run by Mayer and Staggs, which is backed by private equity firm Blackstone. The firm is spending more than $500 million in cash to purchase shares of Hello Sunshine from its investors, including AT&T and Emerson Collective, The WSJ noted.

Following the deal’s closure, the senior management team will continue to run Hello Sunshine’s day-to-day operations. Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine Chief Executive Sarah Harden will join the board of new company and retain significant equity holders in the new business.

Hello Sunshine will become a cornerstone of the new media company’s strategy, which will involve being an “independent, creator-friendly home for cutting-edge, high-quality, category-defining brands and franchises,” it says.

“Today marks a tremendous moment for Hello Sunshine. I started this company to change the way all women are seen in media. Over the past few years, we have watched our mission thrive through books, TV, film and social platforms. Today, we’re taking a huge step forward by partnering with Blackstone, which will enable us to tell even more entertaining, impactful and illuminating stories about women’s lives globally. I couldn’t be more excited about what this means for our future,” said Witherspoon in a statement about the deal.

The deal arrives at a time when there’s an uptick in consolidation happening the media business, as companies adjust to the shift away from traditional TV and standard movie releases to the always-on world of streaming and cord cutting. For example, Amazon in May announced it would buy MGM Studios for $8.45 billion — a deal being investigated by the FTC for potential antitrust issues. Meanwhile, WarnerMedia and Discovery around the same time announced their plans to merge operations, in hopes of taking a bigger bite out of the streaming market. Now, Comcast and ViacomCBS are exploring ways to work together, too.

But as traditional media companies begin to stream, like NBCU did with Peacock, for instance, they also pull back content licensed to other streamers, like Netflix. That drives demand for new sources of independent programming, like what Hello Sunshine produces.

The company’s value in this market comes from its pipeline of quality projects, many of which are pre-vetted by its book club members, who serve as a built-in audience and fan base for the later film or televised release. Plus, the projects it backs are also those that tell women’s stories — a historically neglected segment of the market, and one that Hello Sunshine’s success proves there’s pend-up demand for among viewers.

Blackstone’s investment in the new company is being made through its private equity business, which previously acquired a majority stake in dating app Bumble. Blackstone has made other entertainment industry investments, as well, including music rights organization SESAC; a Hollywood studio space and Burbank office real estate portfolio; global theme park operator Merlin Entertainments; online genealogy platform Ancestry.com; online mobile ad platforms Vungle and Liftoff; and Epidemic Sound, which delivers music to internet content creators.

Livestream e-commerce: Why companies and brands need to tune in

By Ram Iyer
Alanna Gregory Contributor
Alanna Gregory is a marketing executive and is currently senior global director at Afterpay. Previously, she was VP at Hairstory, the founder and CEO of VIVE Lifestyle, and was an AVP at Barclays.

What comes to mind when you think of livestreaming? In the U.S., most people would name their favorite celebrity leading a Q&A on Instagram or a gamer doing a speedrun on Twitch.

In China, it’s shopping, streamed live.

Livestream e-commerce has taken off in China in the last few years and is expected to yield more than $60 billion this year. In 2019, 37% of online shoppers in China (a cool 265 million people) made purchases on livestreams — and that was well before quarantine. In 2020, it’s estimated to have reached around 560 million people.

During Taobao’s annual Single’s Day Global Shopping Festival in 2020 (China’s Black Friday), livestreams accounted for $6 billion in sales — nearly doubled from a year earlier.

Starting to see a trend? The big U.S. companies have noticed, and they’re jumping on the bandwagon faster than you can say, “Swipe up to buy now!”

Last December, Walmart livestreamed shopping events on TikTok. Amazon released a live platform where influencers promote items and chat with customers. Instagram launched a Shop feature that encourages users to browse and buy within the app. Facebook also kicked off Live Shopping Fridays for the beauty and fashion categories.

“It’s an entertaining way for shops to tell the story behind their products. It brings buyers closer than ever to their favorite creators and allows them to have a voice in the conversation.”

Startups are growing fast to keep up with the heavy hitters — PopShop.Live raised $20 million to let people buy everything from books and toys to jewelry from sellers who livestream their offerings, and Whatnot raised a $50 million Series B, largely to expand its livestream commerce infrastructure. There’s also a burgeoning category of SaaS tools such as Bambuser, which is working with brands like Klarna to test native livestream shopping directly within branded apps.

At this pace, retailers will all welcome livestream commerce teams like they have influencer partnerships in recent years. It’ll just be part of the digital equation to stay competitive and relevant in the future of marketplaces and e-commerce.

From B.C. to 5G: The evolution of shopping

What is old is new again. Your grandparents spent years watching QVC because it balanced the experience of speaking with an associate with the convenience of their retirement community’s TV room. Livestream is today’s version of “shoptainment,” where hosts showcase products dynamically, interact with their audiences and build urgency with short-term offers, giveaways and limited-edition items.

Now, with livestream commerce, hosts can form deeper customer connections and answer questions in real time. It’s a new standard of communication that holds a longstanding truth from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to smartphones: People shop to kill time and are more likely to buy when they feel connected with a salesperson.

Spotify’s podcast ad revenue jumps 627% in Q2

By Amanda Silberling

In the minutes before its quarterly earnings call this morning, Spotify played advertisements for its originals and exclusives, like the true crime show “Deathbed Confessions,” and the sex and relationships podcast “Call Her Daddy,” which Spotify recently acquired in a deal worth $60 million. Sure, it’s kind of hilarious to hear a recording of host Alex Cooper’s voice say, “Hey, daddy gang!” as investors log in to an 8 a.m. call, but the subtext rang clear: Spotify is serious about growing its podcast business.

Given how many podcasting companies Spotify has acquired over the past few years, it would be concerning if there hadn’t been significant growth in this realm. Among Spotify users who already listen to podcasts, podcast listening increased 30% year over year, with total hours consumed up 95%. Meanwhile, podcast ad revenue increased by 627%, which outperformed expectations. Spotify attributes this success to a triple-digit year-over-year gain at its in-house studios (The Ringer, Parcast, Spotify Studios and Gimlet) and exclusive deals with “The Joe Rogan Experience” and the Obamas’ Higher Ground studio. Spotify also referenced its November acquisition of Megaphone, a podcast hosting and ad company.

“The continued outperformance is currently limited only by the availability of our inventory, which is something we’re actively solving for,” said CEO Daniel Ek. “The days of our ad business accounting for less than 10% of our total revenue are behind us, and going forward, I expect ads to be a substantial part of our revenue mix.”

Image Credits: Spotify

In April, Spotify launched paid podcast subscriptions — through Anchor, the podcast host that it bought in 2019, creators can choose to put certain content behind a paywall. Apple launched a similar feature, but it’s still too early to know how these subscription services will impact listeners and creators. However, Spotify did share a bit more information about its Audience Network, an audio ad marketplace. Since its rollout in April, Spotify’s “monetizable podcast inventory” tripled. Spotify has also seen a “meaningful” increase in unique advertisers and a “double-digit lift” in CPMs (cost per thousand ad impressions), but didn’t provide specific figures.

Still, the more power a platform like Spotify has over the podcasting industry, the fewer options creators will have for monetization — already, the ubiquity of streaming platforms has taken a toll on musicians, who are working together to demand better compensation from Spotify. The Justice at Spotify movement points out that on average, artists get $0.0038 per stream of a song, which means that a song needs to be streamed 263 times to make a single dollar. Spotify has continued to grow during the pandemic, but because live shows are musicians’ best way to make money in the age of streaming, artists have struggled while it’s unsafe to go on tour.

On this morning’s earnings call, Ek pointed to live performances as a potential way for musicians to increase revenue. In the past quarter, Spotify has tested live concerts as an income stream, partnering with artists like The Black Keys. Still, smaller artists might not trust the platform given its refusal to make streaming itself a more viable way to get paid for their work.

“Live is a meaningful thing for many of our creators, and it’s something that we’re excited about,” said Ek, adding that Spotify saw positive results from its digital live events thus far. “We want to provide as many opportunities for creators … to turn a listen into a fan, and turn fans into super fans, and increase the monetization for those creators.”

Though Spotify missed its target for monthly active users (MAUs) in Q2, other key metrics trended upward, like paid subscriber growth and revenue. The platform attributes this road bump in MAU growth to the lingering impact of COVID-19, as well as an issue Spotify had with its third-party email verification system.

“In full disclosure, this was an issue on our end,” said CFO Paul Vogel. “The estimate right now was that it was about 1 to 2 million of MAU growth that was impacted by the friction created by this email verification change. It’s since been corrected and should not be an impact in Q3.”

Of Spotify’s 365 million MAUs, 165 million (about 42.5%) are paid subscribers — that’s still far beyond its next biggest competitor, Apple Music, which had 60 million subscribers in 2019 but hasn’t released updated figures since.

LiveControl raises $30M to help venues livestream events

By Brian Heater

One thing seems certain: The past year-and-a-half has fundamentally transformed the world of live events. The pandemic left plenty of venues scrambling for alternative revenue streams and, in many cases, shutting down for good.

On the flip side, it’s been a massive driver for those companies working to expand the reach of in-person events. Take LiveControl, which just raised a $30 million Series A led by Coatue and featuring existing investors First Round Capital, Box Group, Susa Ventures and TriplePoint. The round brings the So Cal company’s total funding to $33 million, on the heels of a $3.2 million seed led by FRC last August.

The company offers a production suite that’s a sort of plug and play solution for venues. “What if you could snap your fingers and an entire video product crew would appear, for just $150?” CEO Patrick Coyne asked, extremely rhetorically in a comment offered to TechCrunch.

Image Credits: LiveControl

LiveControl says its technology has been deployed in “hundreds” of spots in the U.S., everywhere from music venues and comedy clubs to Broadway theaters and religious institutions. With its device agnostic software and support, the company also provides third-party camera hardware as part of a package, for a more out-of-the-box solution.

The latest funding round will go toward accelerating its technology and expanding employee headcount from 40 people to 120 over the next year and a half. LiveControl and its investors are clearly bullish on the possibilities here. But there remain broader questions around how much audience members’ interest in remote viewing regresses to the mean once venues reopen across the country and world.

“Video is now table stakes for most organizations, venues and creators,” says Coyne. “We’re only seeing it accelerate, and everyone is forward leaning to make bigger investments to improve their video quality.”

 

Percent raises $5M, aiming to become the ‘Stripe for donations’ to good causes

By Mike Butcher

What with the planet collapsing and democracy under constant attack from all quarters – you know, just the usual – one or two members of the global population have, idly or not, wondered if the private sector might want to step up? I mean, as well as shooting billionaires into space. At the same time, even! Luckily, many businesses want to do better. But there are one or two hurdles. Incorporating “purpose” into their digital offering, such as donating to a non-profit at the end of a moving documentary, is harder than it looks. Businesses don’t have the capacity to build in donation software; they can’t continually verify and audit good causes; and processing donations is fraught with legal complications, compliance, and regulatory risk. What is to be done?

Pennies is one organization that bills itself as the digital equivalent of the traditional charity collection box. However, perhaps what we need is… drum roll… an API?

Step forward Percent. Founded in 2017, Percent provides an API allowing firms to customers to donate to good causes, matching a donation made when making a payment, or rounding up a financial transaction, for instance.

It’s now closed a $5M venture round led by Morpheus Ventures, allowing it to expand in the US, as well as its existing presence in the UK and Australia. The UK’s Nationwide Building Society – also an early investor and customer of the product – is a co-investor in the round.

The company says its API-first platform takes care of auditing and compliance processes to prevent fraud and money-laundering whilst also parsing tax-efficient disbursements of funds into 200 countries worldwide. It says 7 million non-profit causes have been added to the platform and it’s vetted the potential recipients of donations.

Henry Ludlam, Founder, and CEO of Percent, said: “Percent was founded to become the global API-first infrastructure behind all giving. This will be the foundation for a better, fairer future of capitalism in which every financial transaction has social and environmental good built into it.”

In an interview I asked him if the pandemic had accelerated the opportunity: “Because of COVID, suddenly now we have brands that are really desperate to build purpose into their business in a way that they just weren’t doing 18 months ago. It’s really been an amazing shift. We’ve just seen a huge shift in what consumers expect from businesses. Consumers expect businesses to build purpose into what they do now.”

He said that the product could be even built into – surprise! – streaming services: “Say you’ve seen a documentary. And at the end of the documentary, you feel particularly moved, like you watched a David Attenborough or something like that. You could then actually be able to quickly and easily build donations into the end of it. So using our API, it would pull up a list of nonprofits, so right there and then the customer could make a donation. We’re also working with a crypto platform where you can round down your transactions and donate to any nonprofit as well. There’s loads of really cool stuff we are working on which is coming out soon.”
 
Kristian Blaszczynski, Managing Partner of Morpheus Ventures, said: “With the events of the last several years, it has become more apparent that aligning brands with purpose is driving consumer behavior and spend. However, today, the process of donating to non-profits is incredibly archaic, manual, and inefficient… Percent’s API-first platform abstracts away all of these complexities and automates the processes, allowing businesses to align closer to their stakeholders and focus on their core business.”

Percent could well be pushing at an open door. Kantar Research says that only 22% of people could name a brand they thought was doing a good job addressing issues such as climate change, plastic waste, and water pollution. On the flip side, 95% of businesses think that “purpose” is at the heart of what they do. The disparity could not be more stark.

Is Percent the stripe for donations? We’re about to find out.

YouTube’s newest monetization tool lets viewers tip creators for their uploads

By Amanda Silberling

YouTube announced its latest feature, Super Thanks, on Tuesday. This is YouTube’s fourth Paid Digital Good, which is what the platform calls any product that lets fans directly pay creators. So far, these tools include Super Chat, Super Stickers, and channel subscriptions — but Super Thanks is YouTube’s first of these features that allows fans to tip creators for individual uploaded videos, rather than livestreams.

If a viewer wants to show extra appreciation for a video, they can pay creators with one of four pre-set amounts, ranging between $2 and $50 in their local currency. When viewers buy Super Thanks, they can leave a message, which will appear highlighted in the comments section.

YouTube’s previous tools for direct payments to creators seemed like a way to play catch-up with Twitch, but the platform is now differentiating itself with Super Thanks. Even Instagram has features that let users tip creators when they go Live, like Badges, but lacks a way for creators to receive a one-time payment for a post or a reel. Instead, Instagram has pivoted hard to e-commerce, which feels like a less organic or direct way for fans to engage with creators than a product like Super Thanks.

An animation showing how Super Thanks works on YouTube

Image Credits: YouTube

Last year was YouTube’s biggest for Paid Digital Goods — in 2020, over 10 million users purchased either a Super Chat, Super Sticker, or channel subscription for the first time on the platform. The number of channels that earned a majority of their revenue from these products in 2020 was more than 3x in 2019.

“In my spare time, I’m a YouTube creator,” said Barbara Macdonald, YouTube’s Product Manager for Paid Digital Goods. “I’m fortunate enough that my insights as a creator have been able to help myself and my team create better products for our users on YouTube.”

Since 2019, Macdonald and her team have been working with a group of YouTube creators to pilot this feature, originally called “applause,” as beta testers. These creators provided feedback and suggestions on the product, which YouTube took into consideration — they suggested changing the name from “applause,” adding higher pricing options to maximize revenue potential, and differentiating a Super Thanks message from other comments. YouTube takes 30% of revenue from fans’ payments to creators, while competitor Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ subscription revenue.

Starting today, Super Thanks functionality will expand to thousands creators of creators in 68 countries who are members of the YouTube Partner Program. The expansion is randomized, Macdonald told TechCrunch, but will roll out to all eligible creators in the YouTube Partner Program by the end of this year.

So now, maybe instead of YouTubers ending each video with a reminder to “like, comment, and subscribe,” it’ll be, “like, comment, subscribe, and Super Thanks.” 

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