Executive Session | With Fox Soul, A Niche Approach To OTT
Fox Television Stations finally entered the local streaming fray this week with an unexpected opening move — Fox Soul, a channel geared to African-American audiences with a live and interactive programming focus.
It’s a zig to most station groups’ zag, a move Chief Digital Officer Steve Chung says is about veering away from just porting TV content over to OTT and more about asking what audiences want and don’t yet have.
James DuBose, Fox Soul’s head of programming, describes the new channel as “a platform where, as a black community, we’re now able to have a safe place where we can come and have real dialogue, raw and uncut about things we’d normally only have within the privacy of our own homes or with our closest friends.”
That comes via four original hours of daily programming in six original shows, along with an additional two hours of local programming from Fox stations buttressing the block.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Chung says Fox built the new channel quickly with a small group of outside vendors, laying the track to launch future streaming channels. He says time to market, scalability and easy of use on the back end were key to Fox’s streaming buildout, and that the finished viewing product should reflect a nimbler digital take on TV production.
An edited transcript.
We’ve been waiting for some time to see what Fox Television Stations was going to do on the OTT front, and now we know: you’ve got a very niche offering in Fox Soul. Why was this your entry point into OTT?
There’s a lot of industry conversation right now on OTT focused on subscription and a more generic approach supported by deep libraries, and that’s been the bulk of the conversation. We think there’s another interesting opportunity where it comes to advertising supported and more niche, passion demos.
Fox Soul is not necessarily the only thing we will do, but it’s the first one we are going to do. What we didn’t want to do was say, ‘what are we doing on television and how can we just repurpose it for a new platform called OTT?’ As broadcasters, we have made mistakes in the past where we have gone into the digital world thinking that way. What we did was say let’s look instead at what the audience wants.
We ran a series of focus groups in Los Angeles that brought people from lots of different races and ethnicities, age groups, religious faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds and had a conversation about what’s missing from our media diet. We concluded that there was a huge demand for the African-American audience specifically to have something very unique that an OTT platform can serve. That was the genesis of Fox Soul. It met our strategic framework of having it be advertising supported, interactive, focused and live. This was a combination of all of those things.
You have four hours of original programming a day followed by two hours of local programming?
The two additional shows that are not live are programs that are already on the air in many of our local markets. They have now a little bit of a broader mandate to program for Fox Soul in addition to being on the air in local markets.
Where is the original programming being produced?
It’s produced out of Los Angeles.
Are you using existing Fox studios or purpose-built new spaces for it?
We’re based out of a studio called Meruelo Studios. It’s not a Fox-owned studio, but there’s a lot of customization we’ve done to make it work for us, including [having a] live audience. That’s one thing that’s very unique. Subscription-based OTT tends to be scripted, but here it’s live. The motto for Fox Soul is “our voice, our truth,” and it really goes to us wanting the audience – whether they’re live in studio or watching us through Apple TV, on the web or their apps – to really participate in the conversation. People can comment in real time on our website or we have a phone number they can dial into. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to be part of the conversation.
Each of the live shows has a live audience?
Do you staff up around this enterprise or are you drawing on existing staff resources?
This is a new effort with a whole dedicated team. Programming four hours live each weekday is not a small task. We’re leveraging a lot of the expertise and talent we’ve built around the Fox family, but this is a dedicated effort for this product.
Can you give an idea of the staff size around this?
We haven’t made that public. We’re trying to do this as nimbly and efficiently as possible but not sacrifice quality. If you put an individual YouTuber on one end of the spectrum and a network-produced, scripted show on the other, we want to be closer to the produced, professional look and feel. But we weren’t encumbered by the traditional, legacy systems and tech, so we could take a fresh look at things and on the production side we could do on a lighter, cheaper, better, faster way.
Will any of the Fox Soul programming be iterating on air at any of your stations as well?
Possibly. We’re not ruling anything out yet, but we want to make sure first and foremost that the streaming service is where our focus is at the moment.
Did you build the technology here yourself, work with outside partners or a combination of both?
Some pieces are ours and a lot were with other partners. It was a hybrid effort.
Who were the outside vendors with whom you worked?
We make it a policy not to cite vendors and partners publicly. There are a few involved. It’s a big task, so we could not have done this just relying on ourselves.
When you were making the decisions about what to build versus where to work with outside vendors, what were the criteria for you?
Time to market was obviously a very critical thing. Even though we had been contemplating this, we really didn’t finalize on how it would manifest until fairly recently, so from that point on to getting it launched we didn’t have a long lead.
Second was scalability. We hoped this would be hugely popular and any system we built would need to satisfy requirements on concurrency and quality, especially on video playout. This is multiplatform: we’ve got a web version, native mobile apps, OTT living room apps in the way of Apple TV and Fire TV, and also social. On YouTube you can catch both live and VOD. So the system had to be very scalable both in terms of traffic and flexible to be able to support multiple platforms.
Third was something that can be fairly easy to operate and not require a village of people. Fox Soul is our first OTT AVOD streaming project, but hopefully not our last, so we want to be able to learn from what we’ve done and translate that into service two, three or more. [We wanted] something that’s easy enough so when there’s a great idea we can turn it up and the technology doesn’t become a barrier but an enabler.
On the sales side, are you launching with direct sold advertising, programmatic or both?
On monetization, we are going to take a fresh perspective. It’s advertising driven, and we’re going to be experimenting with different formats in addition to the traditional pre-roll and mid-roll. We want to have this live up to the promise of a digital experience where you’re not just confined to 15-second spots. In the coming months, you’ll see us do interesting things on the advertising side.
Will you be selling any of this out of the local stations?
We hope to. Our first priority was to just make sure we have great content and the audience loves the channel, and based on that ramp up the advertising sales. The good thing is we have 28 stations and 17 markets with a very powerful local sales presence. Because some of those shows are coming from local markets like Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, we already have tie-ins to some of those important markets. Our full expectation is once we get this to a point where it’s scaled and normalized, we’ll tap into our existing network of both advertising and content and make this even better.
Are you using the O&Os to market this?
We have morning shows in most of our markets that we’re going to leverage. We have a big marketing campaign in Atlanta that kicked off this week. We have a very strong station there, WAGA. We’re going to use every tool in our arsenal that makes sense to get the world out.
You’ve alluded to this being the first step on OTT, so what can we expect next? More of a niche approach? And what about the OTT prospects for your local newscasts?
At this point, we’re not taking anything off the table. We believe strongly in an AVOD, live, interactive niche as a unique differentiator combination today. But we all know we’re living in a period of massive disruption and all major media companies are really experimenting with that combination of content and technology to see what will be valuable to our audiences. We will certainly learn a lot from Fox Soul. We are going to keep our eyes open.