Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and HBO Max may hog all the headlines, but just below the 800-pound gorillas of the streaming world, an army of smaller regional and specialty platforms are carving out online niches in the booming world of binge TV.
The likes of AMC Networks-backed Sundance Now and Acorn TV, the BBC/ITV streamer BritBox, Nordic TV specialist Viaplay, and Channel 4’s Walter Presents, which focuses on European drama series, are quickly becoming the first port of call for international producers and sales companies. Major regional platforms — the likes of Germany’s TVNow, French streamer Salto, Waave and TVING in South Korea or Chinese online giants Tencent, iQiyi, and Youku — are also pumping hundreds of millions into the independent market by commissioning local originals and by buying up drama and non-scripted series in bulk.
“They are almost more vital to us than Netflix,” says Matt Creasey of indie production powerhouse Banijay, which has sold Swedish series Bäckström to Acorn TV and Swedish comedy-thriller We Got This to Sundance Now. “While you might do one global Netflix deal a year, most of the [independently-produced] shows are sold territory by territory. These niche and regional SVOD platforms are the ones that allow this ecosystem to exist.”
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan compared his company’s niche streamer approach to owning a series of “specialty boutiques” — the company’s online portfolio includes horror and thriller-themed Shudder and Black series and film destination ALLBLK — rather than trying to compete directly with the all-service mega-malls of Netflix, Amazon and Disney+.
Increasingly, these niche operations are global players. Acorn TV in 2018 moved beyond the domestic market, adding Latin America, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands to its territorial footprint. It is currently available in more than 30 territories, with recent launches in the U.K. and Portugal.
Viaplay, the SVOD service run by Scandinavia’s Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT), has unveiled plans to roll out streaming services in 10 international markets by the end of 2023, with a U.S. bow later this year. By the end of 2025, NENT Group aims to increase Viaplay’s subscriber base to around 10.5 million, with international services outside the Nordics accounting for around 4.5 million of that total.
That sort of reach means these “second-tier” streamers are going head-to-head with the global SVOD giants in multiple territories. But instead of trying to match Netflix Euro for Euro or Yen for Yen, they are doubling down on their specialty subjects. Acorn, which has a laser focus on British crime and mystery series, recently commissioned U.K. drama The Chelsea Detective, a co-production with German public broadcaster ZDF, and the six-part thriller, The Reluctant Madame Blanc, together with Channel 5.
BritBox, which is owned by BBC Studios and ITV, just commissioned its biggest U.S. series to date: attaching House and The Night Manager star Hugh Laurie to write, direct, and executive produce an adaptation of Agatha Christie novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? for its North American service. The three-part limited series will be produced by Mammoth Screen, which handled such recent Christie adaptations as And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders.
Viaplay, which plans to premiere at least 40 original productions this year, has greenlit new Scandi series including Fadime, the real-life story of a young woman murdered by her own father in an “honor killing” in Sweden in 2002, and Furia, a Norwegian-German co-production about a female police officer who infiltrates a right-wing terrorist cell.
Local-language originals are the focus for most regional players. Korean streaming platform TVING announced is committing more than $360 million (400 Billion South Korean Won) over the next three years to home-grown originals such as Girl’s High School Mystery Class from local hit-maker PD Jeong Jong-yeon (The Genius, The Great Escape) with a goal of becoming the country’s number one platform by 2023. TVNow, the German SVOD service run by leading European broadcaster RTL Group, has invested in high-end dramas including a reboot of royal romanic classic Sisi (think The Crown set in the 19th Century Austrian-Hungarian empire) and Ze Network, a meta espionage comedy starring David Hasselhoff as a version of himself. Beta Film is handling world sales on Sisi while ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group is selling Ze Network worldwide as part of CBS Studios’ first-look international television deal with Berlin-based producers Syrreal Entertainment.
“Last year, despite the pandemic, [RTL’s] production budget for original drama was double what it was a year earlier and this year it will double again,” notes Hauke Bartel, EVP Fiction at RTL. “This is a long-term strategy of investing in original German-language drama.”
Few of the regional streamers are looking to take on Netflix or Amazon directly, but many see an opportunity to carve out a local-language audience by leveraging their entrenched position in traditional broadcasting. Bartel notes that the network of TV and radio channels in the Bertelsmann Content Alliance— owned or in partnership with RTL’s parent company —reach “a total of 99 percent of German households,” giving RTL’s TVNow “incredible” marketing power.
“If we go out with a show, we can make an immediate, major impact. We saw that with [recent TVNow original] Wirecard, which went from zero to number one the day it launched” after a major marketing campaign across Bertelsmann’s networks.
For independent producers, these second-tier and regional streamers can be a lucrative alternative to the global giants, which typically favor buy-out deals that offer little upside to creatives if a show proves a hit.
“A typical global deal with Netflix or Amazon would involve a cost-plus calculation of 10-15 percent above production costs, so your profit margin is capped at that level and you often have to divide that up with your co-production partners. And you still have the same development risks,” says Herbert M. Kloiber of independent production and sales group Night Train Media (NTM). “If you work with regional platforms and sell territory to territory, you can have a much better upside and can hold on to more rights for spin-offs, local versions, remakes, and such.”
Night Train Media has a deal with Nordic Entertainment to develop and produce original series which Viaplay can take for its territories and which NTM will sell to the rest of the world. The first project under the agreement, the psychological crime drama The Box starring Anna Friel (Marcella) from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, is currently shooting in Sweden.
Another opportunity provided by the second-tier streamers is syndication. Alongside their own in-house originals, regional and niche streamers are hungry for second-and third-run rights of hit series to fill their slates.
“There’s a syndication market now for quality shows in every territory,” says Rose Hughes of sales group Keshet International. “A show like Prisoners of War (2009), the Israeli original that inspired Homeland, is pretty old by now, but we are still selling that to streamers in countries around the world.”