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Playing the Short Game

Why This Matters: ShortsTV tests the waters of whether short films can gain traction on TV and online.

SHORTSTV, a service focused on short premium movies, has carved out a niche for itself with a full-time channel that claims to have a global reach of more than 33 million pay TV homes.

In addition to carriage with select operators in Germany, including reach in the Netherlands, Belgium, Serbia, Slovakia and Hungary, ShortsTV has also found a home on lineups, usually in the form of special movie-focused packages, in the U.S., with multichannel video programming distributors such as AT&T, DirecTV, Google Fiber and CenturyLink’s Prism TV. It also sells short movies (generally defined as any title of 40 minutes or less) through digital partners such as Apple iTunes, Verizon Fios, Frontier and Amazon.

The cornerstone of ShortsTV’s business has been traditional television, complemented by online. So far, the company has learned, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the online audience tends to skew younger than those who watch on traditional TV.

The next step in the evolution of ShortsTV could build a bridge between those two sides. It is geared toward over-the-top apps that can be paired with its linear offering by coupling usage data with an algorithm that creates dynamically changing content slates and playlists tuned and tailored to individual viewers.

Seeking Wide Appeal

As with any linear channel, ShortsTV, which features theatrical short subjects including Oscar winners, is faced with the challenge of appealing to the widest possible audience. But the rise of OTT and on-demand access to libraries has driven viewers to expect a more personalized experience.

That’s as true with long-form TV shows and movies as it is with shorter films, which can include loads of unfamiliar titles that might be of interest to viewers. “It’s a really difficult proposition to get [consumers] to choose to invest even two minutes picking a short movie that might only be two minutes,” Carter Pilcher, CEO of Shorts International, said.

To address the challenge, the ShortsTV App, targeted to set-top boxes at first, delivers an A.I.-assisted, curated experience that takes the lead in picking and choosing titles. Those titles can then be built into a playlist that, to the consumer, looks like a linear channel. The app will launch with a catalog of about 2,500 movies. “You can build endless playlists,” Pilcher said. However, “it always feels like you’re watching TV.” Pilcher likens this to how Spotify and Pandora personalize their digital music services, only in this case applied to short movies.

For the new app, ShortsTV is working with Icreon on the front end and Ooyala on the back end.

A Tall Order

ShortsTV’s app was spawned in part by a request from Liberty Global and its Ziggo operation in the Netherlands. They asked if ShortsTV would develop an app that was not as menu-based but that made its video-on-demand content more accessible, and see if that could help bump up the rate at which consumers were watching that content.

Ziggo has been testing that app on Liberty Global’s Horizon-class boxes, and launched it in February. ShortsTV hasn’t released data on the new app yet, but it said the early results are promising, as it has been outperforming its legacy, menu-based VOD offering.

“We’re seeing a lot of repeat usage,” Pilcher said, noting app users can also build playlists based on specific genres, such as animation, comedies and crime dramas.

This complementary approach that links ShortsTV’s television and online capabilities is something that Pilcher calls “big TV.”

“We didn’t want to build an app that took away from the TV experience, but give [viewers] something that augmented and expanded the TV experience,” he said.

ShortsTV is in talks with Liberty Global about offering the new app in some of its other markets. And ShortsTV is also thinking beyond the TV, as it’s developing a mobile version of its app for smartphones, tablets and laptop browsers that’s expected to start testing in April and roll out commercially in May. It won’t be a stand-alone offer in that it will be an authenticated app for consumers who subscribe to ShortsTV through an MVPD.

Pilcher said ShortsTV has talks underway to expand its distribution with MVPDs in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, including major providers in India and Latin America.

But those talks, he stressed, are focused on deals that would include both the ShortsTV linear channel as well as the app, as the programmer currently has no intention of making the new app available as a pure standalone.