You’d be forgiven if you’ve lost track of the many peregrinations there have been of what’s now called Crackle Plus, a pioneering video service now owned by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment.
Crackle started as Grouper in 2004, soon ending up on Sony, which spent 13 years trying to figure out a good strategy for it. Crackle did launch some notable originals in that period, including Jerry Seinfeld’s Emmy-nominated shorts series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and crime dramas The Oath and Startup.
Finally, in 2019, Sony extracted itself from streaming, selling Crackle to Chicken Soup for the Soul in exchange for a stake in the parent company, a hugely successful publisher of self-help books looking to expand into new media.
The Crackle acquisition put a charge in Chicken Soup’s streaming ambitions, first made plain with the hiring in early 2019 of veteran media executive Philippe Guelton, now executive VP of Chicken Soup’s VOD Networks and president of Crackle Plus.
Guelton’s own background is in publishing, especially for female audiences. French-born Guelton started his career in New York with Hachette Filipacchi Media, rising to exec VP and COO of the U.S. magazine group that included Elle, Car and Driver and Woman's Day.
When Hachette sold the group to Hearst, Guelton became president of Thrillist, then CEO of SheKnows Media. At the beginning in 2019, he joined Chicken Soup for the Soul to spearhead its video push.
Crackle Plus includes both an ad-supported VOD offering and a FAST channel that offer an array of licensed and original films, documentaries, scripted and unscripted series, including many of those Sony shows.
Guelton also oversees Popcornflix, another long-time ad-supported video service that targets a younger demographic with action/adventure programming. Those services already serve up more than 50 million streams a year, but are getting a revamp amid increasing competition.
A Complete Overhaul
“It’s actually a complete overhaul,” Guelton said. “We needed to be more competitive, and actually try to leapfrog [competitors] again, and try to get the best user experience. How do you find the content? How do we recommend content to you? How do you engage with the different platforms on which you can watch it? These are all very important parts of the experience.”
Coming soon is a third ad-supported service, this one with the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand. It’s expected to arrive within a few months, and feature lifestyle, cooking, travel, and other programming designed to appeal to a predominantly female audience that has long slurped up Chicken Soup’s uplifting and vaguely spiritual content.
“We are launching the FAST channel first, with the idea of introducing the brand to our viewers across as many linear platforms as possible,” Guelton said. “We consider FAST as an amazing marketing tool to present the brand but also to give [audiences] an idea and a sample of the programming that will eventually reside on the full VOD service.”
The Chicken Soup programming will also get its own branded “tray” on Crackle’s FAST service, providing a way to cross-promote beyond the parent company’s social media and publishing operations.
Eventually, Guelton said the Chicken Soup AVOD service will feature “thousands of shows and movies, and a lot of originals to better serve an audience which we believe is not well served, frankly, in the world.”
Banking on AVOD Originals
The company has been producing a notable number of Crackle originals for some time, as a way to differentiate from other AVOD and FAST services.
During the 2020 Upfronts, the company announced nearly 200 hours of original programming, including Going from Broke, an unscripted self-help series something like The Biggest Loser for people with financial problems. Produced by Ashton Kutcher, the show won an OTT.X Impact Award for its aspirational stories about people fixing their wrecked finances. Other originals included a docuseries on gangster rap, a supernatural thriller series, and the seemingly inevitable Nicolas Cage movie.
This May’s Upfronts saw more originals announcements, including sports docs about NBA stars Vince Carter and Ja Morant, and a series about the hugely successful football program at Long Beach Poly High School in the Los Angeles area.
To make those originals, the company leverages Chicken Soup’s distribution unit, called Screen Media Ventures, which mines festivals and producers around the planet. These platforms also rely on Chicken Soup’s in-house production division, which makes shows for Hulu, Disney Plus and other subscription-video outlets that eventually make their way back to Crackle.
“Our whole strategy is we can still produce the high-value expensive stuff, and by managing windowing and international rights, we eventually get content that is almost paid for when it comes to Crackle,” Guelton said. “That's basically why our vertical integration with distribution and production are so essential. That's the No. 1 way we make originals possible, by making sure we monetizing them across a number of other platforms besides on OTT.”
And having originals pays off big, Guelton said. Crackle originals and exclusives last year accounted for almost 30 percent of all the service’s streams and 20 percent of ad impressions
But don’t count on an in-house SVOD streamer anytime soon, given the already overcrowded market and Chicken Soup’s more modest scale, Guelton said. So the focus is on making better ad-supported services.
“Our ultimate goal is to build the best AVOD experience, with the best content, the best user experience, the best advertising experience, too, because it's such an important part of (a free video) service,” Guelton said. “But also, we want to make sure they don't see that (advertising) as an obstacle for watching our shows. Our goal is to provide the best service for them.”
Better Ads, Better User Experience
Part of making the best service is improving the ad experience, Guelton said.
“We all know that VOD services in general have a lighter ad load than traditional TV stations, networks and cable, so right there, it's a huge improvement,” Guelton said. “But we try as much as we can to minimize the need for pre-roll and mid-roll advertising and really focus on on the higher value-add integrations.”
That can be brand integrations in originals, sponsorships of packages of content or linear channels, and the newest opportunity, interactive ads that give users an ad-free experience for the rest of a show’s duration.
“We're working really hard to figure out new ad experiences that are going to be more integrated with the content,” Guelton said. “And we're in the process of relaunching all our platforms and looking at the latest ad tech to speed up the ad load. There's nothing more frustrating than having a spinning wheel (indicating a buffering video feed) when you're wanting to watch a movie, and you got to wait for that pre-roll and it takes forever to load. So that's obviously a big pain point that we're working hard to remove.”
There are other tweaks to the ad experience, like ensuring commercial breaks don’t come in mid-sentence. It’s easy enough to do with legacy shows built for traditional ad breaks. But it’s more complicated with original programming that weren’t structured for regular ad breaks, Guelton said.
“We have a team that literally goes through and places those ad breaks,” in that original programming, Guelton said. “There’s better and better technology to help you do that in a more automated way, and so we’re exploiting that.”
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David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.