Berlin: European VODs Innovate, Create to Stay Afloat in Global Streaming Wars

Netflix and other streaming giants might be setting the pace for a global TV landscape upended by video-on-demand technology, but European players are shaking up domestic markets by ramping up investment in original production, forging unlikely partnerships, and looking to beat Netflix at its own game by finding innovative ways to personalize the VOD viewing […] …

Netflix and other streaming giants might be setting the pace for a global TV landscape upended by video-on-demand technology, but European players are shaking up domestic markets by ramping up investment in original production, forging unlikely partnerships, and looking to beat Netflix at its own game by finding innovative ways to personalize the VOD viewing experience—even while bringing Netflix original content to their own platforms.

Those were some of the takeaways from a lively session opening the Berlinale Series Market on Monday. Moderated by Variety international editor Manori Ravindran and presented in cooperation with Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, the panel featured Filippa Wallestam, EVP and chief content officer for NENT Group; Arnim Butzen, vice president of commercial management entertainment and TV at Telekom Deutschland GmbH; BritBox president and CEO Soumya Sriraman; and Movistar Plus president Sergio Oslé.

One of the main challenges facing European streaming services is carving out an identity in a market whose biggest players produce and acquire enough content to attract the widest possible audience. “The thing that we’ve believed from day one is that you have to be something for somebody,” said Sriraman. “You have to ask yourself: are all of these shows…right for me? Are they right for my audience? Are they right for my audience today? Will they be right for my audience tomorrow?”

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In recent months, the Nordic Entertainment Group has closed major output deals with the likes of Disney, Sony, and NBCUniversal for its Viaplay streaming service. The multi-year pacts suggest that media giants are still willing to offer competing platforms access to their catalogs, despite industry handwringing that content in the rapidly-Balkanizing VOD market will soon vanish behind competing paywalls.

Wallestam has found such deals can be a two-way street. “I would prefer to call them partnership deals, rather than output deals,” she said. Viaplay has not only built up its library by acquiring content but is finding a profitable market for its own originals.

Nowhere has that been more clear than on its home turf. “Our originals are super important when it comes to brand building of the product,” said Wallestam. “It drives a lot of sales. It is local faces that our audiences can recognize.” She estimated that Viaplay will release more than 30 scripted originals in the coming year, in addition to its documentary and unscripted offerings. “We are still very happy that we have a strong library of content and strong acquired deals. That is a lot of volume, and that’s very important for a platform.”

Movistar Plus’ parent company, Telefonica, signed a deal last fall with Atresmedia, the production house behind the smash Netflix series “Money Heist,” to forge a joint content creation giant. “We thought that we needed to have a little bit more scale in our own country,” said Oslé, noting that the launch of a new Netflix production hub in Madrid signaled the streaming service’s designs on conquering the Spanish market. “We felt that we needed to have a little bit more muscle, and the only way to do that is through joining forces with somebody else.”

The Movistar Plus topper said the company’s production of local content has worked “very, very well,” though that hasn’t necessarily translated into massive output. After initially investing more heavily in original productions, Movistar scaled back, and will release 3-4 feature films per year and one high-end TV series a month. such as the upcoming “La Unidad” (pictured).

That decision acknowledged a reality that weighed over Monday’s proceedings. “We will not be able to compete with a Netflix, with a Disney on [scale],” said Butzen. The Telekom Deutschland exec noted that while original productions are part of the company’s content strategy, it’s an aggregator first and foremost. “We don’t see them as competition. We see them more as partners, giving the customer what he really wants and what he enjoys on one platform.”

For streaming platforms that rely on acquisitions for the bulk of their content, the question remains what will happen when those output deals come to an end. For the time being, however, Butzen said “our goal is to have them all on our platform, and provide the customer the customization that he gets these shows that he really likes and we recommend.”

That raises the question of whether smaller players can carve out a competitive advantage simply by cutting through the clutter. “What is personalization? In a world that we live in, how many of us…go to Netflix and say, ‘Yep, this is exactly for me’?” Sriraman asked, drawing laughter from the audience. “We’re all living in this world of excessive data, and excessive algorithms. While all of that is important, I think we have to go back to basics. Do I know my audience? Do I know that this is the show that’s going to work for the audience in general?”

“You can’t produce as much content as we do and serve as broad a range of content as we are doing today if you can’t package it and filter it in an appealing way for the customers,” said Wallestam. “For us, that is the thing that our tech team is working on all the time, and it is going to be even more important.”

While the road ahead is uncertain, Oslé insisted that he was still more worried by traditional media concerns, such as the looming battle for the lucrative broadcast rights to European soccer’s Champions League. “That’s a lot of money that we have to put in if we win it, and that’s a huge risk that we’re taking there,” he said.

“What I’m worried about is when we pay $20 million for a series, and then I have to make sure that a lot of people watch it, because I’m in the business of making money,” said Oslé. “[If Netflix is] willing to subsidize a huge production, they’re willing to partner with us and offer that inventory to our customers at a cost that is more optimal for us, then I think it’s not scary at all.”