Katherine Pond has one of the most influential jobs in the burgeoning business of streaming video: Vice President of Business Development for consumer-electronics company Vizio, one of the biggest TV makers in the United States.
In her role, Pond cuts deals with dozens of streaming services and library owners to put their content on Vizio’s Connected TVs, especially through its SmartCast system, which has been part of all the company’s smart TVs since 2016, and has been regularly updated for all owners since then.
Connected TVs are increasingly attractive to buyers who want an easier way to access the flood of streaming content now available online, according to a Kantar Media study, the just-launched quarterly Entertainment on Demand service.
Among other findings, the top “trigger” for subscribing to any VOD service was getting a Connected TV for 13 percent of first-time subscribers, the study found. And more experienced VOD subscribers want their favorite apps embedded in their Connected TV for the easiest access.
So it’s safe to say the decisions Pond makes in programming options and technology choices for Vizio TVs and the SmartCast operating system are crucial to differentiate its well-regarded, value-priced offerings.
Pond talked with TVRev about the red-hot Connected TV space, the fight between streaming-service providers for prime screen real estate, the AVOD explosion, and what the next step will be for OEMs providing a range of programming to consumers. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TVR: How do you decide what companies make it onto the interface? Or do you just let the customer decide:?
KP: What we’er really focused on is making sure that we have the latest and greatest content on the platform. But what that means from a practical aspect is, of course, we have to have all the major guys on the platform, right? We have to have Hulu, we have to have Netflix.. But we also want to cater to all of our consumers’ needs, and consumer needs and wants in the content space are diverse. And so while that doesn’t mean we’re going to pick up every single thing that’s out there, certainly, it does mean that we’re going to put niche content onto the platform to make sure that we have something that consumers are interested in, and that they’re engaging with our platform and coming back over and over again.
TVR: That must be a challenge when dealing with all those different content providers and all their different metadata and configurations. How do you manage that?
KP: Cinedigm is one of the closest relationships that we have there. They have developed a template app for our platform. And the reason we pursued this approach was because there is so much great content out there. But you have these content owners or content distributors that really aren’t tech people, right? They know great content when they see it. They know how to make content that consumers are interested in, but they don’t know how to get it out there. Historically, YouTube was an easy solution, right? But that didn’t really allow content creators and distributors to monetize their content in the best possible way. So working with a template partner really allows us to offer an easy, affordable solution that’s relatively quick to market for all these entities to get their content onto the Vizio SmartCast platform. And then that helps me fulfill our goal of making sure that we have all of that unique content for them.
TVR: So how do you describe SmartCast?
KP: SmartCast is a video platform that’s really the technical interface for the system. It first came to market in about 2016 and was really designed as Chromecast built in. But it’s really evolved so much beyond that now. We have added HTML5 applications, we added Airplay support. We have Google, Google voice assistant, we have Amazon Alexa support, we support Apple Siri. So what what I would say about SmartCast is, we have really taken a position that we are going to be agnostic in the market. And however the user wants to interact with that device, we’re going to support it. And that’s really served us well, both with consumers and with all of the major tech partners in this space.
TVR: Vizio collects viewership data through automatic content recognition tools, and aggregates it through a separate division of the company. How do you manage privacy issues under the EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPR regulations?
KP: Vizio is U.S. based, so obviously there are certain areas where we have to be compliant with those laws. Everyone has to comply with GDPR, but we have less concerns in that area because we are US based and that’s where we’re doing our distribution, at least on the TV side. On the product side, they’re always looking at privacy and making sure that they’re making the necessary product updates and changes that need to be made to stay in compliance. So, you know, the good news for me is on the content and app side of things, we’re very much focused more on things like getting the latest content onto the platform. And the good news is the product team and the engineering team and all of our privacy gurus here are able to make sure that everything is compliant on the back end.
TVR: How many services do you need to have for your consumers? And they’re available in a variety of business models. How do you handle that?
KP: I don’t think there’s a magic number. You’re not going to find me saying we need exactly 100 or we need exactly 1,000. But we do need enough content there to ensure that we’ve hit all the major categories. Can consumers access that in a manner in which they want to access it? That means some consumers are willing to pay on a transactional basis. Some consumers are willing to pay for a subscription. And some consumers are willing to pay with their time, meaning with ads. And so if we can bring those different models together with that content, then we’re meeting the need.
TVR: Where do you fit in with the many makers of third-party external streaming devices?
KP: That whole being the glass ultimately we feel is definitely an advantage for us out there. We’re not just the software, we’re not just the hardware, and we’re not just the content. You don’t need to get an Amazon Fire Stick. You don’t need Roku. You buy a Vizio TV with SmartCast and you have all the content that you need access to. So you’ve got your MVPD, you have your SVOD, your TVOD, your AVOD. It’s a one-stop shop.
TVR: That’s a really different notion. But you’re not going to start commissioning original programming, right?
KP: So we are not creating our own original content. But going back to my point earlier about the these direct relationships, we may not be creating original content, but we are talking to someone who may give us exclusivity over that content, or who may create that content on our behalf, knowing that we have the ad sales team to go out and monetize that content for them.
TVR: So what’s next for Vizio?
KP: One thing that’s really great about being an OEM is being the last step, because we’re the glass. We have a ton of insights into what works with our consumers.. As the OEM, especially with SmartCast, as I look at my home screen – where we’re doing all kinds of different editorial promotions, paid promotions, content promotion – I know what’s interesting to a user across all of the services. So we can take those learnings and can say, ‘Vizio consumers are interested in this specifically’. And so then you start getting into content programming, and content merchandising and content promotion, and how do we get the right things in front of the consumer that they’re interested in? That’s a huge area of focus for video in 2020, as we really start looking at even better personalization and recommendations for consumers.
TVR: What are you doing on the hardware side, given that you also oversee the company’s IP licensing and tech investments.
KP: We’re releasing a push-to-talk remote in 2020. You’re going to be able to press that remote button and do content searches on your Vizio TV. Not only do we have a push-to-talk remote now, we are talking to all our content partners to make sure that their content is surfacing the right way, so that users are getting the relevant results that they’re searching for. How do we make sure that that’s just one more piece of value that we’re adding to this experience?
TVR: What other trends are you seeing?
KP: I’m seeing more from OEMs and devices going directly to content creators and cutting out the middleman.We can talk to a content creator and say, ‘We’re going to take your content. And we’re going to talk to companies about doing a sponsorship. And then we’re going to put your content directly onto the platform. We don’t need anything else other than a back-end provider.’ So yeah, it’s an interesting time.