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This new service is like Twitch for Netflix and other streaming video

Incubated at RealNetworks, Scener lets you watch other people as they watch movies and TV shows.

This new service is like Twitch for Netflix and other streaming video
[Screenshot: courtesy of Blumhouse Productions]

A startup called Scener is trying to bring Twitch-style video commentary to Netflix and other streaming video sites.

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When you download Scener’s Chrome extension onto a Windows PC, Mac, or Chromebook, you can browse movies and shows for which people have created accompanying videos. The actual movie or show plays directly from the source website, and Scener’s own video track appears in an overlay. You might, for instance, watch a comics writer share his perspective on Sin City, or a former Vine star inject some wine-fueled humor into Santa Clarita Diet. Scener synchronizes the two videos and offers a discussion tab where viewers can chat among themselves.

While plenty of video commentary already exists on YouTube, copyright rules preclude creators from showing more than a few seconds of a movie or show at a time. Scener allows people to record their reactions over an entire TV show or movie without violating copyright. The hope is that this will breed a new class of video creators with their own devoted followings.

“When you look at how big Twitch has gotten in the video gaming vertical, and if you look at events like Comic-Con and VidCon, there’s something really happening in the way that people consume and engage with content right now that doesn’t quite yet seem to have caught up with the way that we think about TV shows and movies that we love,” says Joe Braidwood, Scener’s cofounder and CMO.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Dimension Films]

Real origins

Despite Braidwood’s cofounder status, Scener isn’t an independent startup. The company was incubated through RealNetworks, a streaming technology firm that’s probably still best known for its dotcom-era RealPlayer media player and plug-ins.

Daniel Strickland, a senior product director at RealNetworks, came up with the idea for Scener about a year ago. Obsessed with Game of Thrones, he wanted to soak in all the commentary and fan theories that appeared on social media during new episodes, but his schedule seldom allowed him to watch new episodes live.

“I was always frustrated that I couldn’t rewind Twitter,” he says.

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[Image: courtesy of Scener]
Strickland pitched his superiors on the idea, and convinced them to invest several million dollars in the project (Scener won’t disclose an exact figure), while allowing Strickland to work on it full-time. Braidwood, a consultant for early-stage tech companies, came on as CMO. If all goes to plan, RealNetworks hopes to spin off Scener into a separate company and raise outside capital.

“The plan is, we’re going to get through the launch and start to build momentum,” Braidwood says. “The executive team at Real is very bullish on Scener.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of Bravo]

Going live

At launch, Scener is offering more than 600 videos, both from unknown creators and people who’ve already achieved some internet fame on other platforms such as YouTube and Vine. Scener is currently paying those creators, though it’s unclear for how long this will continue or how exactly the site plans to make money–both for itself and for creators–in the long run. Although creators can integrate a Patreon link for direct payment from fans, Braidwood says Scener has no plans to introduce advertising on the platform.

“We think that people come to platforms like Netflix to get away from advertising, so that’s not part of our strategy right now,” Braidwood says. “There are a lot of signals in the industry that when a creator has a big audience, they can really monetize that in various ways, and we’re looking very closely at those things.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of Scener]
For all the ways in which Scener is reminiscent of Twitch, it’s not trying to replicate that service’s live aspect. Instead, it wants to preserve the on-demand nature of the services it’s tapping into, which currently include Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. When you comment on a video, for instance, it’s pinned to the part of the video that’s currently playing. The discussion grows over time as more people inject their thoughts into the stream.

Creators can still go live on Scener and ask their viewers to tune in at a specific time, but the idea is for everyone to have the same experience regardless of when they view a video. “Fundamental to the product right now is that it can happen at any time,” Braidwood says.

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[Screenshot: courtesy of CW]
That said, part of me is hoping Scener leans into live events a bit more. There could be a lot of interest, for instance, in having fantasy football experts provide live commentary over an NFL Redzone feed, or getting a snarkier take on the Oscars or other awards shows. Strickland says that Scener could technically accommodate these kinds of uses, but for now the company would rather focus on videos that people can watch on-demand.

[Screenshot: courtesy of Scener]

Technology hurdles

Scener’s cofounders bristle somewhat at having their product described as a Chrome extension—”We’re calling it a platform,” Braidwood says—and insist that there’s a sizeable audience that will watch videos on their laptops. Still, the startup does want to expand onto other platforms. It’s just unclear how that’s going to happen.

On iOS, for instance, Chrome doesn’t support browser extensions, and there’s no way for Scener to build its own video app that synchronizes with other video apps like Netflix and Hulu. (Apple does support split-screen apps and video overlays in iOS, but doesn’t allow two apps to play videos at the same time.)

Strickland and Braidwood say they’re prototyping (and patenting) some potential solutions, but won’t get into specifics. “There’s a lot that we can do in resurrecting the second-screen idea, of the commentary exists on my screen here, while I’m watching on my big screen TV mounted on the wall, and then syncing it all together with some special sauce,” Strickland says.

[Screenshot: courtesy of AMC]
The need for such workarounds underscores Scener’s biggest challenge: With video game streaming services like Twitch, video creators capture their own gameplay footage and record their own commentary, effectively giving them control over all the content. Game publishers have generally allowed this to occur, recognizing it as a marketing opportunity and a potential source of ad revenue. By contrast, Scener is performing an end-run around copyright rules though a Chrome extension, which doesn’t need TV and movie studios’ blessing to overlay commentary on top. This approach could become a liability if the startup wants to expand onto mobile devices, smart TVs, and game consoles.

That said, I could imagine a scenario where Scener works directly with Netflix, Hulu, or another video provider to integrate directly with their apps. While the startup has yet to discuss its product with streaming services or Hollywood studios, perhaps the Chrome extension is the proof-of-concept Scener needs to get their attention.

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“Right now, we’ve just focused on building the product, because we’re a small team and we want to create a great experience, but we do think that it really enhances the proposition for the whole industry,” Braidwood says. “We’re looking forward to revealing it and getting reactions.”

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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