Starz Entertainment, whose online distribution deal with Netflix expired earlier this year, is doubling down on TV Everywhere with a suite of video services designed to keep consumers within the pay-TV tribe.
Cox Communications is the first to offer the premium programmer’s branded online and mobile services, Starz Play and Encore Play, for no extra charge to subscribers of the linear networks. The two services provide a total of 1,300 movies and TV shows, viewable online or through Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch devices.
The new Starz services augment its existing TV Everywhere deals, under which it distributes the same content to five affiliates -- Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T U-verse TV and Verizon’s FiOS TV -- on their respective online services.
Starz built its own standalone, branded platform because “not every distributor has the resources to do that,” president of affiliate distribution Ed Huguez said. “Cox approached us about the need for a platform that is completely integrated and ready to launch.”
The programmer has invested “millions of dollars” in the Play services, which took more than year to develop, according to Huguez. “It’s definitely a big endeavor,” he said, declining to disclose how much Starz spent on the project.
Starz also sees benefits of controlling the full experience on its own sites and apps: “What it does for us, as others have documented, is that it gets our brand in front of consumers,” Huguez said. “This is all table stakes now.” Starz’s five previous TV Everywhere affiliates have also shown “high interest” in adding access to the Play services, he added.
The strategy mimics HBO’s aggressive push with HBO Go, which is now available to more than 98% of U.S. pay-TV subscribers. Others in the premium category are following the same path: Showtime Networks has signed two partners -- AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS -- for its branded Showtime Anytime authentication service, while Epix has TV and online distribution pacts covering some 30 million homes.
Cox will begin actively marketing Starz Play and Encore Play this week. The TV Everywhere websites for Starz Play and Encore Play went live for the MSO’s subscribers on Sept. 25, and the iTunes apps for Starz and Encore were released on Oct. 1.
Cox and Starz initiated their discussions on the TV Everywhere services when the MSO renewed its carriage deal in the first quarter. Huguez noted that the programmer is not tying the launch of Play services to renewals: “We are timing it to when a distributor has the resources available and coincides with our ability to support them,” he said.
For Cox, the goal is to enhance the value of a Starz subscription and ideally attract new takers, vice president of video marketing Jonathan Freeland said. “It’s part and parcel of our overall strategy to expand the viewing choices for our subscribers, as well as expand the number of devices they can view them on,” he said.
Cox’s marketing campaign for Starz Play and Encore Play will include TV and online ads and social media outreach. In its own cross-channel spots, Cox will provide an interactive TV link to a VOD channel with more information about the TV Everywhere services.
Starz’s deal with Netflix, which ran from late 2008 to February 2012, raised the ire of affiliates who believed the inclusion of TV-window content in the $8-per-month Internet streaming service cramped their ability to market Starz packages. The programmer confirmed it has no plans to offer the Play services to Netflix or any other online video provider.
Starz also rubbed pay-TV partners the wrong way with Vongo, a $10-per-month direct-to-consumer broadband subscription video service. The company announced Vongo in 2006 and phased it out by mid-2008.
Starz Play offers about 400 monthly selections, including 300 movies comprising first-run films from The Walt Disney Co. (Cars 2 and The Muppets) and Sony Pictures Television (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, 21 Jump Street and Moneyball). In addition, the service provides 100 episodes of Starz original series, including Boss, Magic City and Spartacus. Encore Play provides about 900 monthly selections, with 300 movies and select originals including Titanic: Blood and Steel and Moby Dick.
In the near future, Starz expects to launch both MoviePlex and MoviePlex Play with Cox. MoviePlex Play will have about 200 older movie titles each month, such as Raging Bull and Ghostbusters.
Initially, the Starz-branded TV Everywhere services will be available on the Web and for Apple iOS devices over Wi-Fi and broadband connections. Starz is developing access to the services over 3G and 4G wireless along with support for Android devices and gaming consoles.
The services include parental controls. On the iPad and iPhone apps, menus, screens and commands are optimized for touchscreens to provide drop-down and swipe-through navigation and controls. In addition, Facebook and Twitter integrations let fans chat about the content.