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Surviving the streaming wars when you’re not Netflix or Disney

What VRV can teach us about the future of how we watch

artwork of Netflix, Disney, Hulu, VRV logos

Streaming is the future of film and television. We’ve known this since Netflix launched its streaming service back in 2007. What we don’t know is exactly what that future looks like.

The DVD-by-mail-service-turned-streaming-giant terraformed the home entertainment industry more than a decade ago, and in turn, created a ubiquitous question asked about every show or movie that a person would recommend to a friend: “Is it on Netflix?” But what was once answered with an easy “yes” or “no” now has a variety of different possibilities, depending on who financed the movie, who produced the show and how long the licenses last.

Along with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, a fleet of budding, media-company-specific platforms is gunning for our attention. Major studios are looking into their own options. Then there are some who believe — or at least hope — that there’s room in the paradigm for alternative streaming strategies. The big question of this era becomes: how much can the landscape splinter?

VRV is one of the smaller services staking a claim in the gold rush for attention. Unlike Netflix, VRV bundles other over-the-top (OTT) services — the industry term for platforms that deliver content to viewers without a traditional pay-TV subscription — and offers them to viewers for one a single subscription fee. VRV general manager Arlen Marmel tells Polygon that the company is “fandom-focused,” targeting very specific audiences with niche channels, but supporting each arm of the business by only offering one buy-in plan. A flat fee of $9.99 a month gets a VRV user 12 streaming channels, mostly focused on anime and animated shows. A free-to-watch plan offers a limited selection of channels with commercials.

“That’s not to say that someone who subscribes to VRV has to watch everything on VRV,” Marmel continues. “They just sort of say, ‘Wow, Boomerang and Crunchyroll and Shudder all in one place, that’s perfect for me and I save a few dollars.’ So in theory, if we get the value proposition right, it sort of sells itself.”

VRV boomerang partnership VRV

A bundle of related channels, versus subscribing à la carte, reads like a steal from the consumer perspective — or, in traditional terms, like a solid cable package. But in this competitive era, it’s the content owners who need the most convincing that VRV’s model has a place alongside that of Netflix.

At the moment, most of the channels that VRV bundles belong to the larger WarnerMedia family, the company that owns VRV through its Otter Media subsidiary. But the service does have several high-profile non-Warner partners, including AMC’s horror movie-focused streaming service Shudder, which was originally designed as a stand-alone platform but has since partnered with companies like VRV and Amazon, and NickSplat, which is owned by Paramount. Convincing more brands to join in is the uphill battle.

Marmel believes in his strategy because he also imagines that, in the immediate future, any company with ownership over any amount of content will launch its own OTT network.

“This is sort of human nature,” says Marmel. “Everyone kind of wants to be able to do everything on their own. Naturally you’d rather have 100 percent control and have end-to-end control,” Marmel says.

What once seemed like a path only available to HBO, with its deep pockets, a deeper content library and Game of Thrones as a keystone, has started to seem more and more doable for other networks. In the fragmented future, viewers will only find shows on their own producer’s content hubs, forcing everyone to learn and remember rights holders the way they might a director’s name. And unlike with cable, there’s no clicking through channels until you find your program, unless you’re ready to look through each and every streaming service.

There will be collateral damage as major corporations round up their assets and prepare for the streaming service long haul. Just look at the last month of Netflix: Over a few Friday nights, the company quietly axed Marvel shows Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil. Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is readying its own streaming service for a launch in 2019. That likely didn’t make negotiating either series’ return for a subsequent season any easier.

Netflix movies and shows selection screen Netflix

American Vandal, a show beloved by critics, seemed to have been another series caught in the push and pull of the content shuffle. Thanks to Netflix’s lack of transparency around viewership, no one knows whether the mockumentary series was popular. Despite high praise for the series’ second season, Netflix canceled the series in October. The decision might have had something to do with the fact that Netflix doesn’t own American Vandal — it was produced by CBS Television, which has its own streaming service, CBS All Access, with a growing list of original series.

While VRV is a harbor for OTTs looking for viewers, it isn’t immune to the effects of splintering either. Last month, Funimation, one of the largest distributors of anime in the U.S., and a recent acquisition by Sony, left both Crunchyroll and VRV — both of which are owned by AT&T and WarnerMedia — in order to focus on its own streaming service.

Marmel believes this is a temporary ailment rather than a long-term struggle.

“We lost Funimation for the time being, but I don’t think that that means that it’s gone forever, necessarily,” he says. “I think we’ll see more and more scaled audiences live on with bundled platforms, which will make it increasingly compelling for individual channels to live in an aggregated capacity.”

Marmel also believes that the future of streaming is likely to reflect what he already sees in the industry: Aside from the massive monolithic services like Netflix and Amazon, the smaller, more niche services will struggle, and any platform that survives will get by on the “depth” of its content, not the breadth of its offering.

The depth of VRV’s well of content is another key idea for Marmel as he considers the service’s future. “I think you’ll see us stay narrower and go deeper,” Marmel says. “VRV is an environment that allows you to bring these fringe bands together and go a lot deeper than you could otherwise.”

Marmel hopes that VRV will serve as a place for niche channels that can’t sustain stand-alone services. Instead, that OTT network’s specific audience will be able to find a home on VRV, then discover other series on other channels that they might enjoy. Whether viewers will be hungry for discovery, and if companies will agree with Marmel, is the great unknown.

The idea of bundling is the core of a number of emerging streaming services. Last month, Disney gave the first official details on its Disney Plus streaming platform. Rather than being one streaming service where the company’s entire library will live, Disney Plus will grant users access to content from across Disney’s five major brands — Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic — which each houses its own massive library. Alongside Disney Plus, Disney may also soon have a significant amount of control over Hulu, giving the company two distinct OTT services with different libraries.

A proposed streaming service from VRV parent WarnerMedia will likely bundle together Warner Bros. Pictures’ film library (which includes DC’s comic book movies and the Harry Potter franchise), the Warner Archive (which fueled the now-deceased FilmStruck), HBO and a number of other TV networks like The CW. Where VRV falls into the strategy once the untitled service debuts in late 2019 is unclear, but the space is hot enough that companies seem to be competing with themselves to get ahead.

While bundling may well end up being smaller services’ best bet sometime in the next few years, the immediate future of streaming is splintered, and the cultural ramifications are demanding for viewers. Around 140 million people subscribe to Netflix and Hulu, and an Amazon Prime account — of which there are more than 100 million — gives you access to more than just Amazon Video, but from there, it’s all about choices. Do you want Disney Plus to see the new Loki show, CBS All Access for Star Trek: Discovery or VRV to follow specific anime seasons? What will be the draw on Fox’s theoretical streaming service or the one from WarnerMedia due later next year? What services are on the horizon but have yet to be revealed, and what major programming will they tout?

With all these choices and questions, it’s easy to see how the landscape would get too complicated for just about anyone to follow. In some ways, Marmel is betting on the bubble bursting. After years of cord-cutting conversations and à la carte campaigns, perhaps people want something akin to cable packages.

“There’s been a lot of rhetoric that consumers don’t want bundles, but I think the reality is they also don’t want to buy all of these services individually, as evidenced by the fact that a lot of them have ceased to exist. So I think, ultimately, in the end, bundles will win.”

[Ed. note: Former Polygon employees Griffin and Justin McElroy produce the show My Brother, My Brother and Me which streams on VRV.]