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X's uphill battle in the living room

Also: Plex is coming to T-Mobile

Welcome to Lowpass! This week: X’s upcoming TV app, and Plex’s T-Mobile partnership.

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Elon Musk’s plan to take on YouTube on TV

With Mars out of reach for the time being, Elon Musk has set its sights on a new kind of target: Musk’s X, formerly known as Twitter, aims to make the leap to the living room with the launch of a series of smart TV apps.

Last week, X CEO Linda Yaccarino tweeted that the company is building a “go-to companion for a high-quality, immersive entertainment experience on a larger screen” that would be coming to “most smart TVs” soon. Her announcement was accompanied by a short video preview of the app, which just happened to include a SpaceX rocket launch, an episode of the All In podcast and Tucker Carlson’s interview of Vladimir Putin as featured videos.

Musk followed that announcement by posting a promotional clip of his own this week that featured a series of old school TV sets donning an “X TV” logo – a clip that was likely sourced from Fiverr, where a digital gig worker is selling videos based on this template for $10. 

His promotional budget notwithstanding, Musk appears to be serious about bringing X to the TV. However, launching a smart TV app and actually gaining a sizable audience for it are two different things altogether, and X will likely face an uphill battle in the living room. Not only is it facing off against the biggest name in video, the company also tried – and failed – to expand to TV before.

Twitter’s TV apps were a massive flop in the past. Musk and Yaccarino may have made it sound like launching TV apps was a brand-new idea for X, but Twitter actually had a long and complicated history of attempts to enter the living room. The company’s most recent play for the living room happened eight years ago – and its fate is instructive for X’s renewed efforts in this space.

  • In 2016, Twitter acquired the streaming rights for the NFL’s Thursday Night Football. The deal allowed Twitter to stream ten full-length games, which were also being broadcasted by CBS, NBC and the NFL network.

  • The terms of the deal allowed Twitter to stream the games to a variety of devices, including TVs, as long as those streams were being shown within Twitter’s own apps. Casting, however, wasn’t allowed by the league.

  • Smelling an opportunity to tap into premium smart TV ad dollars, Twitter decided to quickly launch dedicated apps for a number of popular streaming devices and TVs.

  • Twitter had just three months between the signing of the contract and the kickoff for the first game – not enough time to stand up an internal smart TV development team. That’s why it hired Brooklyn-based Happy Fun Corp. to pull off the development and launch in record time.

  • Happy Fun Corp’s own case study captures some of the frantic energy around those efforts: “HFC became their technology partner for the premiere of the service, a mere 12 weeks away. We kicked off with a visit to San Francisco where we embedded with the Twitter team to ramp up as quickly as possible, work through technical questions, and iterate on design as the backend integrations and logic were built out.”

  • I’ve been told by a person familiar with those efforts at the time that the startup dropped almost everything else to pull off the launch of the apps in record time.

  • On the surface, those efforts paid off: Twitter was able to launch dedicated smart TV apps on Xbox, Apple TV, Android TV and Fire TV in time for the NFL season. A dedicated Roku app followed a year later.

  • The apps gained some critical acclaim, with Apple even naming the Apple TV version “App of the year” in 2016. However, users were less kind: Twitter’s Xbox app was rated just 1.5 stars, while its Android TV app gained two stars. Users didn't appreciate that they couldn’t actually tweet from their TVs, among other things.

  • Many also just didn’t see a point in an app that showed them videos that were either made for mobile, or available on YouTube as well. Viewership was dismal, according to a former insider. “No one used it,” they told me this week.

  • That’s why Twitter pulled the plug just two years later, removing its TV apps from most app stores. However, even those efforts were somewhat haphazard: To this day, Amazon and Apple still offer the old Twitter TV apps on their app stores, bird logo and all.

But what if Elon gets it right this time? Reports suggest that X is looking to launch apps for Samsung and Fire TV, while a recent leak suggests that the company has been building an HTML5 app that would run on a variety of smart TV platforms.

  • It has also been reported that X’s TV app is “identical” to YouTube’s smart TV apps, while Yaccarino has said the app would support casting to “start watching on your phone, continue on your TV.”

  • Taking on YouTube on TV is a tall order: Recent Nielsen data shows that YouTube now accounts for 9.7% of all TV viewing in the U.S. The Google-owned service has a bigger living room audience than Hulu, Prime Video, Disney+ and Max combined.

  • There’s also a big overlap between the content shown on X and on YouTube, giving existing YouTube viewers little reason to switch. Even Tucker Carlson continues to post his videos on YouTube as well.

  • Complicating things further are X’s lax content moderation rules. When Happy Fun Corp. built Twitter’s TV apps in 2016, it had access to internal APIs that allowed it to only show videos eligible for monetization, which was meant to ban all adult content.

  • However, by bringing casting to the X app, X will likely open the floodgates for all of its content to show up on TV – to the dismay of advertisers looking for a brand-safe environment.

Musk continues to be his own worst enemy. Ultimately, X’s smart TV efforts are in the same bind as the rest of the company’s ad business: To get big brand ad dollars, X has to attract massive mainstream audiences with exclusive content. However, Musk keeps self-sabotaging those efforts, whether it’s by reposting far-right conspiracy theories or by canceling content deals on a whim. 

Without those mainstream videos and audiences, X TV will just be another Rumble – a marginal video platform popular with some voices on the right that was able to generate just $20.4 million revenue in its most recent reported quarter.

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Plex teams up with T-Mobile

Here’s one of the more interesting tidbits coming out of the Newfronts this week: Media aggregator app Plex has teamed up with T-Mobile to distribute ads and content on each other’s platforms. Under the deal, ad buyers using T-Mobile Advertising Solutions will gain access to Plex’s audience, while T-Mobile subscribers will be able to more easily access Plex’s ad-supported content.

Details surrounding this deal are still a bit hazy, but it does sound like T-Mobile is going to launch what it calls “a specialized T-Mobile experience” powered by Plex for its customers. “The experience will be very similar to today’s Plex but presented within the T-Mobile experience/brand,” a Plex spokesperson told me, while cautioning that some of the details are still being finalized.

A co-branded version of Plex running on T-Mobile phones: That’s an interesting proposition for Plex, and could potentially also solve one of the startup’s biggest problems: Plex has a loyal audience of 22 million monthly active users, but the company’s FAST channels and ad-supported on-demand titles in particular don’t nearly enjoy the same exposure as competing services. 

Samsung TV+ and the Roku Channel, for instance. are tightly integrated into the companies’ respective smart TVs. By gaining a foothold on T-Mobile devices, Plex could potentially attract a much larger audience for its ad-supported videos as well.

And for T-Mobile, partnering with Plex could be a first step towards a more aggressive video strategy. The company briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a pay TV provider, but shut down its own T-Vision streaming service just five months after its launch.

What else

$20B of Apple’s services revenue came straight from Google. There’s a tendency to conflate all of Apple’s services revenue with Apple TV+ and Apple Music subscriptions. The DOJ’s lawsuit is a stark reminder that the company makes a whole lot of money in that segment with things that don’t have anything to do with entertainment at all ... including a whopping $20 billion from Google to be the default search engine in Safari.

Roku is adding video ads to the home screen. The company told marketers at the Newfronts that its home screen is being seen by households with close to 120 million people every day.

You can now get cheap Apple Vision Pros on Ebay. Okay, cheap is relative, but some models apparently sell for significantly below retail pricing.

Fubo is dropping WB Discovery networks. The streaming TV provider got rid of Discovery, HGTV, Food Network and TLC, among other networks, as the latest carriage dispute drags on.

Prime Video helps grow Amazon’s ad revenue by 24%. Introducing ads to Prime Video is paying off for Amazon.

Must-read Creator Economy news. Every. Day. The Tubefilter newsletter has it all. Subscribe now. (SPONSORED).

Walmart’s newest streamer doubles as a smart speaker. Okay, this is kind of fun: The retailer’s still-unannounced Onn Pro Google TV streaming device is also a Google Assistant smart speaker.

Pause ads are coming to Vizio TVs. Thought you’d be able to catch a break from advertising? Think again: Vizio is introducing pause ads, which are coming to its Watchfree+ streaming service first.

That’s it

Here’s a show I enjoyed immensely this week: Netflix’s My Name is a great Korean crime drama with lots of surprises along the way … but what really got he hooked was the first episode. What a backstory!

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

Photo by aj_aaaab on Unsplash


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