Downloads give SVOD platforms another subscriber hook

As they ice their swollen lips and black eyes while flying the friendly skies, United Airlines passengers can download series like the classic "Twin Peaks" from Showtime Anytime.(Showtime Networks)

The OTT experience that was once defined by broadband-enabled streaming has been steadily incorporating a download-and-play-later capability.

Amazon rolled out download capability last summer, and Netflix followed last November. Hulu says it is hard at work on a deployment, likely later this year. Last week, Showtime announced an update of its standalone OTT app that enables downloads for playing later on mobile devices, including phones. (That’s welcome news for New York subway hipsters looking to binge on "Twin Peaks" before the premium network’s reboot launches in May.)

For all of the gushy press-release quotes about the “freedom” these initiatives give viewers to “access content anywhere and anytime,” the OTTs are not exactly racing toward a downloadable future. They are gritting their teeth and enabling the feature as a way of retaining subscribers, not necessarily gaining new ones.

“Anything that reduces churn is a good thing,” says Dan Rayburn, an analyst and early OTT entrepreneur who runs the Streaming Media Blog. “But it’s a little bit like offering your content in 4K. That alone is not going to get people to sign up. They’re not making downloads available as a way of boosting their subs.”

Also, as with enhancements like 4K, it doesn’t come easy from a tech and engineering standpoint, let alone the rights issues that are often involved. Netflix, for instance, wasn’t able to square away rights to any Disney titles for its offline feature. The SVOD service had dragged its feet on offering downloads at all, mainly because its shop window of multibillion-dollar originals, served up by its proprietary algorithm, goes dark when the viewer is offline. Less Wi-Fi, less engagement. But with Netflix subscriber numbers approaching 100 million around the world, thanks to expansion into many areas where reliable internet service is scarce, downloads made sense.

Bandwidth is the main challenge keeping broadband-only players (like HBO Now or CBS All Access, among many) from jumping into the offline fray. Ben Smith, Hulu’s senior vice president and head of experience, expanded on that idea during a talk last November at the Open Mobile Summit.

"There's an experience that we're all familiar with, we sit in an airplane, we’re on a long car ride, we want to watch our favorite show," Smith said. "I actually think offline is more interesting in relation to bandwidth, and how people consume bandwidth” given that at some point, that viewer still needs broadband to get their show on a device.