Industry Voices—Shafer: Downloads and multiple screens could be key in crowded SVOD space

Hulu downloads
Hulu recently began offering downloads to users on its ad-free tier. (Hulu)

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Price and content will likely remain front and center in a hyper-competitive U.S. subscription video (SVOD) landscape but features such as downloads and simultaneous streams could help set some services apart. Consumers may not necessarily make initial purchase decisions based on secondary features like maximum downloads, number of streams, parental controls and the length of free trials but they can be factors in customer retention and reducing churn.

Newer entrants such as Disney+ and Apple TV+ have pushed the envelope in numerous ways in the SVOD sector -- especially when it comes to downloads for offline viewing and total number of simultaneous screens available per account – and could nudge some competitors into following suit.

While the majority of viewing at most SVOD services comes from connected TVs and streaming devices, the ability to download titles has emerged as an important differentiator between services. Amazon, Netflix and Starz were among the first services to launch download functionality in late 2016, followed closely by most major services with a few notable exceptions. Hulu did not offer download capability until late 2019 and HBO only began offering download options for certain users in early 2020.

Among services offering downloads for offline viewing, Disney+ stands out with no limitations on the total number of downloads and a maximum of 10 devices that can be used to download titles. Disney’s ownership of full content rights to virtually all the movies and TV shows on the Disney+ service gives it enviable flexibility when it comes to features such as download availability. Gaining the necessary rights to offer downloadable content can be a hurdle for smaller SVOD services and user experience may vary as some downloaded content may be suddenly removed if rights have expired.

Most services offer a maximum of 25 downloaded titles per account although some do allow subscribers to download 25 titles to multiple devices, extending the maximum number of downloads at one time to 50 to 150 titles. Netflix’s maximum of 100 downloaded titles was the highest among services with a cap and that total can be extended for Standard and Premium subs who are allowed additional devices for downloads.

Services with a hybrid model that includes an ad-supported subscription tier such as CBS All Access and Hulu have restricted downloads to subscribers on their ad-free tiers while Quibi displays ads prior to a download request being processed.

The vast majority of services offer multiple simultaneous streams with their base package except for Netflix and Quibi (although Netflix does offer two simultaneous screens with its Standard tier and four screens with its Premium offering). The importance of the number of simultaneous streams offered per account can vary across households. Single adults may never use more than one stream, but households with multiple adults and children might stream different shows on three or more devices on a regular basis.

Quibi was the only service in our analysis to offer just a single stream, while Apple TV+, BritBox, Disney+ and Starz came in at the higher end with four or more streams each. The family-friendly fare at Apple TV+ and Disney+ could be influencing their more generous secondary features, while Netflix remains the most notable service to offer tiered SVOD packages that have additional benefits at higher tiers such as more streams and access to Ultra HD content. Hulu also offers an “Unlimited Screens” add-on priced at $9.99/month that tacks on additional simultaneous screens for its SVOD-only and Hulu + Live TV subscribers.

Services walk a tightrope of sorts as simultaneous stream limitations are often less of a technical limitation and more of an attempt to limit the impact of account sharing. As competition increases and newer services launch with generous policies, some incumbents might be pressured to include additional streams in their offerings.

Interested in more data on this subject, as well as more research and consumer insights on the broader streaming television industry? Please register for our virtual StreamTV Summer Research Summit on 6/29-6/30 here, where a collection of top industry analysts will be releasing a treasure trove of exclusive data and forecasts across a wide variety of leading trends in OTT. It's a one of a kind event you won't want to miss. We hope to see you there.

Seth Shafer is a research analyst at Kagan (a media research group within the TMT offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence) who primarily covers online video, digital advertising, e-commerce and social media. Mr. Shafer began working at Kagan in November 2012 and previously worked as an analyst at bwin AG and at Hoover’s, Inc., a subsidiary of D&B. 

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.