Home Tech ‘Virtual video store appeal’: How Tubi became America’s best free streaming service

‘Virtual video store appeal’: How Tubi became America’s best free streaming service

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'Virtual video store appeal': How Tubi became America's best free streaming service

tHere’s one reason why so many websites devote tons of virtual pages to the question of whether a new movie is on Netflix and when it might appear there. For many casual viewers, the biggest streaming site is more or less synonymous with the streaming itself; Even big brands like Disney+, no longer HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ are basically playing for second place. But at some point, they may have to admit that this is at best a battle for third place: Last month, Tubi surpassed all of those brilliant non-Netflix services mentioned above.

While more sophisticated streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video have been experimenting with ad-supported versions to boost revenue (either through cheaper ad-supported subscriptions, in the hope that customers will pay more to avoid ads, or money from the ads themselves), Tubi offers a rotating lineup of ad-supported movies and TV shows at the unbeatable zip price. It is a free service that does not even require a login. (I know this firsthand: I’ve been a regular Tubi user for years and have yet to create a real account.) Tubi combines the thrilling browsing of the old video store experience, the instant-gratification appeal of Netflix, and the old-fashioned channel-flipping on cable, where everyone once accepted the built-in ad breaks that came with viewing of movies. Apparently, viewers don’t mind introducing a little retro into their streaming experiences; Tubi continues to grow in audience and advertising revenue. In its last quarter, the latter increased by 22%. (According to the CEO, the service still not making moneybut the growth in such a competitive and capricious industry is still remarkable).

Even before these figures were released, Tubi was no longer a rude upstart; Fox Corporation, the part of the media conglomerate that was not sold to Disney and which owns several Fox-branded television stations, bought the service in 2020. However, its essential focus appears to be more or less the same: offering viewers viewers a wide range of ad-supported options (sometimes even programming that could appear on other better-looking streaming services recently or simultaneously) without investing so much money in marquee originals to harass subscribers. There’s actually a lot of original Tubi programming, but there’s also a retro feel to it; It’s more what one would expect from direct-to-cable or direct-to-video exploitation films of the ’90s or early ’00s than, say, HBO. The company is beginning to experiment with starrier, higher-profile originals, including a new series starring TV mainstay Lauren Graham, but they seem unlikely to overcome the appeal of its virtual video store.

In fact, a potential secret weapon that sometimes goes unacknowledged in descriptions of Tubi’s rise is the fact that it has tons of movies that are over 30 years old, a relative rarity on many paid streaming services. At the moment, Netflix has about two dozen pre-1990 movies, and that’s an uptick from a few recent months, thanks to their recent anniversary year initiative that saw them promote groups of movies from 1974 and 1984. A Max is doing a little better. on average, thanks to its Turner Classic Movies ownership, but there’s nowhere near the level of depth or variety there is on the real TCM (or its excellent subscriber-only cable streaming app). For other services, a telltale sign may be to look for a genre that’s less common today, like westerns or musicals, and see what they offer. Peacock, for example, has a pre-1990 musical; Tubi’s picks in this department include the original West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Royal Wedding, The Pajama Game, The Jazz Singer, Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, The Musician, and High Society. It’s probably not everything you need to know about the genre, but it’s a better start than many more expensive services can provide.

This makes Tubi seem like the choice for seniors looking to supplement their MeTV viewing as a way to look back into the past. However, according to the company, Tubi also has the youngest average age of television audience, 39 years old. That “TV” designation likely removes some magnets for younger media consumers, like TikTok or YouTube, but Tubi CEO Anjali Sud emphasized in a recent interview that the company has its eye on younger viewers and sees itself as competing with important alternatives to traditional film and television, rather than a futuristic version of a particularly well-stocked cable channel.

While it’s probably hard to beat YouTube’s reach (and its creators’ endless supply of attractive, algorithmically enhanced thumbnails), the two services are surprising competitors, at least for now. Although you can rent movies and shows through YouTube, the platform has exploded thanks to sui generis content and its creators, who are not always immersed in anything more than other YouTube videos and/or the changing whims of the algorithm that serves them. This material can be connected in various ways to comedy sketches, talk shows, reality shows, visual essays or animated short films, among many others, but much of it has its own parameters and genres that can often seem, to outsiders, isolated from the history. Tubi, on the other hand, can offer a surprisingly decent crash course in classic cinema, if you’re willing to sit through a few ad breaks (which, again, almost anyone who grew up on cable TV in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s was ). Even in months when your specific “classics” section might decline (or the transfers of certain public domain titles might not be the most pristine), there is an eclecticism that expands beyond the very recent past and, indeed, rewards curiosity with a tight budget. If streaming is going to rot our brains and keep us cooped up, the least it can do is offer a little breadth.

That may not be the long-term game plan, just as Netflix gradually whittled down its endless DVD library to a much more finite set of conveniences. In that same interview with The Verge, Sud talks about investing in content creation, not necessarily at the Netflix level, but courting younger voices who might otherwise consider creating things for companies like TikTok. On one level, this seems like a possible misinterpretation of who your audience is and how to court them, like hiring a juggling clown to perform at a local video store. But if Tubi keeps its large, rotating selection of free movies and shows alongside less experienced content creators, perhaps it can create a more natural flow between TikTok-style instant culture and entertainment created by real professionals, something that actually capitalizes on the promise of a convergent and omnivorous Internet. (And maybe “content creators” can simply replace the knockoff portion of Tubi’s catalog, which is substantial, and probably substantially boosts its selection numbers, with the kind of Disney animated mock-ups and knockoffs you used to find on sale in the pharmacy.)

Maybe it’s a midlife chimera: that somehow culture will return to a richer sense of history that realistically and playfully draws connections between entertainment from different eras. But right now, the brand that is shorthand for streaming treats theatrical releases with hostility, is tightening the strings on its auteur-driven projects, and is presenting shows that seem increasingly disconnected from the craft of making television. Netflix accidentally created a new, worse kind of monoculture, where options are few and voracious, unsatisfying binge-watching is encouraged. Imagine a future where, instead, we’re Tubi and relaxing.

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