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Free Streaming Services Blur Together With Similar Libraries

Ben Bowman

Would you like to watch “Hell’s Kitchen” for free? You’re in luck, since you can watch the show on Tubi, Pluto TV, Peacock, FilmRise, Crackle, IMDb TV, Vudu, Roku Channel, XUMO, Redbox, and probably more.

If you have a subscription streaming service, you can also watch the show on demand with YouTube TV, fuboTV, Hulu, discovery+, and Philo.

The Gordon Ramsay reality mainstay is just one example of shows that are ubiquitous on streaming services, thrown in to bulk up a library without any unique value. Today, YouTube TV announced “Hell’s Kitchen” as one of the titles it’s now adding as an upgrade to its service. But when the show is available on a dozen other streamers, why should subscribers care?

Consumers are choked with options in the AVOD space today. Companies are eager to shovel free content at users to get them in the door. But too often, the library stagnates. Services like Tubi, Roku Channel, and Pluto TV are doing a good job expanding their offerings with content you may actually want to watch. Roku Channel is turning out original films and shows. Tubi has a shocking amount of quality movies like “I Am Legend,” “The Goonies,” “Legally Blonde,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Cast Away.” Pluto TV is even offering a way to watch “Yellowstone” for free.

The average consumer watches nearly four streaming apps. The AVOD options are a great way to supplement SVOD choices with a larger library. But the trick is to stand out amid the competition, and too many ad-supported services seem content to fling the same reality shows at their viewers. In that case, how does a viewer choose one service over another? Does it just come down to user interface?

Paramount executives categorize their content as “lean back” or “lean forward.” In the case of virtual channels showing familiar content, that’s “lean back.” It’s the reality show you keep on in the background as you do the dishes. It’s the sitcom you’ve seen a hundred times. It’s background noise. And Paramount noted that its engagement on Paramount+ increased as it added virtual channels showing 24/7 reruns of “Survivor,” “Beavis and Butthead,” or “PAW Patrol.” Netflix data shows us that “The Office” and “Friends” were among the top shows on that service before they bounced to Peacock and HBO Max, respectively. While the audience demands compelling originals, they also want something familiar — that explains why Netflix paid so much for “Seinfeld.”

The danger in adding shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” is that services are diluting what makes them special. Sure, there’s allure to having every possible title on a service, but there are diminishing returns with titles so widely available. If a service already has a robust library, adding the “AVOD starter pack” only clutters the service, making it hard to find something worth watching.

That clutter of content also explains why Netflix is paying for Ryan Reynolds, Chris Hemsworth, and Sandra Bullock - that name recognition may at least make you hover over a title for a few seconds. Disney+ is banking on the recognition of its Marvel and Star Wars franchises for its new content. Notably, neither service is taking on Gordon Ramsay to juice its subscriber numbers.

Increasingly, social media platforms like TikTok are using their algorithms to surface content that will appeal to each user’s individual preferences. While the SVOD services offer this to some degree, most AVOD offerings resemble the $1 DVD bin at Walmart. It’s an avalanche of content from the past 70 years. If a free service hopes to outfox its competitors, it would be well served to spotlight content most consistent with its users’ preferences. In the absence of original or exclusive content, the next best thing is a decent library with a better user experience.

Until the UX improves, you can pass the time with Gordon Ramsay reruns on at least 15 different services.

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