Editor’s Corner—Which wireless carrier will be Viacom’s first mobile partner?

(Pixabay/AT&T/Verizon/Sprint/T-Mobile)
Editors_Corner-MUNSON

Viacom has mostly found itself on the outside looking in as streaming TV services assemble their channel lineups. Now, the programmer has a plan to make up for the missing incremental revenue by pursuing mobile streaming deals.

Virtual MVPD DirecTV Now packages almost all of Viacom’s core networks with its introductory $35/month tier. But Sling TV only includes Comedy Central with its $20 intro tier and relegates the rest of Viacom’s networks to add-on packages like Comedy Extra and Kids Extra. And Viacom is left completely out of Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV.

Whether those carriage gaps are motivating Viacom or not, the programmer is moving ahead with a strategy to get its content in front of streamers, particularly on mobile. The company is indeed planning to launch its own streaming service later this year, but it has placed just as much emphasis on potential mobile streaming deals with U.S. carriers.

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This year, Viacom has announced mobile streaming deals in Latin America with Telefonica and in Europe with Telenor.

With Telenor, the deal gives the carrier mobile streaming rights for Viacom’s Paramount+ product, which combines Paramount Pictures first-window movies and Viacom television networks. With Telefonica, the deal brings live access for five of Viacom’s networks (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount Channel) to the carrier’s SVOD service Movistar Play. For Viacom, the deals are based on revenue-per-subscriber economics, comparable to traditional pay-TV distribution rates.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish has said the company is in talks with multiple U.S. mobile operators for similar deals, one of which could be done this year.

“I’m thrilled to be talking about Telefonica, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg,” said Bakish.

Thus, the question becomes: Which of the big four U.S. carriers are mostly likely to be Viacom’s first mobile dance partner? Let’s speculate.

AT&T
As mentioned earlier, DirecTV Now, the vMVPD owned and operated by AT&T, already heavily features Viacom’s networks. So it’s unlikely that AT&T would do another mobile streaming deal with Viacom when DirecTV Now is already a fairly mobile-friendly product.

However, a lot of AT&T’s current strategy for attracting younger audiences to streaming services rests with Otter Media, which offers Ellation, Fullscreen, Rooster Teeth, Crunchyroll, VRV, Gunpowder & Sky and Hello Sunshine. Viacom’s youth-targeted channels like MTV and Nickelodeon would certainly fit in with efforts at Otter like VRV, which aggregates content from different streaming services.

Still, the odds of an AT&T-Viacom mobile streaming deal this year don’t seem likely.

T-Mobile
T-Mobile made a big splash last year when it announced it was buying Layer3, an upstart pay-TV distributor based in Denver. T-Mobile closed the deal in January and now has its “TV team” in place, ready to deliver a TV service that works over fixed or mobile networks.

The acquisition positively befuddled analysts.

“Isn’t video—or, OTT video, at least—already delivered anywhere?” MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett asked in a research note published in December. “And how, exactly, will T-Mobile’s national wireless footprint fit with Layer3’s city-by-city facilities-based (or partially facilities-based) distribution model?  And, more pointedly, why does T-Mobile need to own the video aggregator (or any video aggregator)?”

Nevertheless, T-Mobile now does own a video aggregator, one that has a carriage deal in place with Viacom. If that distribution deal doesn’t easily encompass mobile, maybe the streaming deal Viacom is referencing is a modification to its existing carriage deal with T-Mobile/Layer3. But although it’s still unclear what T-Mobile is doing with the Layer3 assets it acquired, it doesn’t seem likely that the Un-carrier would follow up that deal by pursuing piecemeal mobile streaming agreements with programmers.

Sprint
Sprint continues to struggle. During the fourth quarter, Sprint clocked about 375,000 net adds. While any positive subscriber numbers are a plus, Sprint’s additions were well below AT&T’s, Verizon’s and T-Mobile’s, and the carrier is still way back in fourth place among the nation’s wireless operators. Sprint could use a boost in the form of a compelling, different kind of video streaming offer. Unless you count bundling free Hulu subscriptions with its unlimited wireless plans, Sprint doesn’t have much of a video play to speak of.

Sprint’s parent company SoftBank is reportedly sniffing out a significant stake in Charter, which could potentially result in a merged Sprint and Charter. But it could still be awhile before a merger that big materializes, so the odds that Sprint is working on beefing up its video strategy through a mobile streaming deal with Viacom in the meantime seems highly probable.

Verizon
Verizon has long tried to attract mobile video viewers and has long struggled. The company’s high-profile launch of ad-supported video platform Go90 ended up as a flop. Tim Armstrong, CEO of Verizon’s combined AOL and Yahoo company Oath, hinted that Go90 could be put out to pasture in the near future.

Verizon has also reportedly struggled to get programming deals in place for its own vMVPD to compete with the likes of DirecTV Now and Sling TV. The latest word on Verizon’s streaming TV ambitions indicates the carrier plans to offer standalone streaming apps with themes like news, sports and entertainment. Viacom’s channels would certainly fit in with the entertainment app.

Verizon needs to license content for its streaming TV packages, and it needs to happen fast if Verizon has any hope of catching up to more established vMVPDs. So it seems the odds are very good that Viacom and Verizon are cooking up a mobile streaming deal for this year. — Ben | @fierce_video

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