As Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum in early June, Tubi, the largest free, ad-supported movie and TV streaming platform, expressed solidarity with the movement by creating a vertical called United Against Inequality. Among the titles that were curated for users were Ryan Coogler’s 2013 indie hit Fruitvale Station, about the killing of a young Black man, Oscar Grant, by a BART police officer in 2009; the documentary Harriet Tubman: They Called Her Moses; and the 1979 miniseries Freedom Road, which stars Muhammad Ali as an ex-slave in 1870s Virginia who gets elected to the U.S. Senate.
None of them were Tubi originals—there’s no such thing—but the move highlighted the way that the company is able to take its vast library of over 23,000 titles and nimbly present them to users in a way that feels fresh and relevant.
Indeed, a number of the UAI titles shot up Tubi’s most-popular list soon after the category debuted.
At a time when entertainment companies are placing more emphasis on showcasing work from underrepresented groups (Netflix has its Strong Black Lead category) in keeping with the political and social justice currents sweeping the nation, Tubi’s DNA makes it more culturally relevant than ever.
The platform may not have the brand-name appeal of Netflix or Hulu, but it is hugely popular with millennials and has always indexed high among ethnic minority groups such as Blacks and Latinos, driving viewing of movies such as Ali, the 2001 film starring Will Smith as the iconic boxer, to be top performers on the platform.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Tubi is morphing into a formidable platform that can no longer be called a schlocky streamer to tune into late at night after giving up on Netflix and Hulu. When Tubi first launched, Variety‘s headline blared that its library consisted of TV shows and movies “most of which you’ve never heard of.” Six years later, while Tubi still has its share of quirky fare—Titanic 2 was recently on its most popular list, and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto was, curiously, recommended for my viewing—the company has been doubling down on higher-quality content and more of it. Over the last year its library has doubled in size.
Tubi’s recent $440 million acquisition by Fox has given it new ammunition with advertisers and access to hit reality shows such as The Masked Singer, Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back, and Lego Masters. Recent partnerships with AMC, Relativity, Sony Pictures, and NBCU have added more fodder to the mix. Indeed, at a time when the streaming wars have given us a flood of subscription services all trying to sell themselves with splashy original titles meant to drum up a blast of publicity and, hopefully, subscriptions, Tubi is playing a more deliberate, long-tail game.
The service retains its staunch stance about investing in original programming, focusing instead on buying up more library content that will keep its 25 million users engaged for the long haul.
The bet has been paying off.
On Fox’s earnings call last week, it was reported that in June, Tubi streamed 200 million hours, representing over 100% growth year over year. (Tubi does not disclose revenue figures or views for its titles or very much in the way of granular data.)
“Tubi’s content continues to evolve pretty drastically on a quarter to quarter basis,” says Farhad Massoudi, Tubi’s founder and CEO. “We now have new deals and work with a lot of major studios that we didn’t have back in the day. We just couldn’t afford them, and our business couldn’t support them. It wasn’t rational a couple of years ago. Now it is.”
To win in the increasingly crowded advertising-based streaming video-on-demand market (the so-called AVOD space), which now includes NBCU’s streaming option, Peacock, Tubi will need to do even more to differentiate itself. But as viewers grow more fatigued by all of the subscription choices and their price tags, Tubi—which has a low ad load of just six minutes of commercials per hour, and a much more vast library than rivals like Crackle, the Roku Channel, Pluto, and IMDB TV—is poised to be the one streaming service that you actually want to click on. Looking for great movies and TV shows you haven’t seen in a while? Catch Me If You Can, say? Or Memento or Monster?
Tubi has them.
“Their older titles are solid hits—they’re not B-class or obscure movies,” says Tomas Vyskocil, founder and CEO of the streaming analytics company FlixPatrol. “For millennials, there’s the nostalgia thing—’I remember seeing this with my dad when I was 10’—and it’s free and super easy to use.”
NOT TRYING TO BE NETFLIX
Massoudi says that Tubi’s mission is “super-serving the underserved.”
The platform has always had great breadth, going deep in such niche categories as documentaries, anime, and horror. Scroll through the site and you’ll find Paranormal Activity 4, Biker Boyz, and Yu-Gi-Oh: The Movie. This varied cupboard has helped make up for the fact that what you’ll never find on Tubi is The Office or Friends. Nor will you ever see a buzzy, high-priced original TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Morning Show.
Indeed, Massoudi audibly shudders at the idea of investing in original TV shows and movies—the strategy embraced by Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and other SVOD services that routinely shell out huge sums of money to line up sexy shows with A-list talent. “I never say never, but that hasn’t been our strategy,” he says. “We don’t have any plans for originals. The idea is to find these larger catalogs of libraries.”
If anything, Massoudi is deliberately trying to zig where Netflix zags, offering up Tubi not as a competitor to Netflix, but as the free service you choose to complement your Stranger Things viewing. Seventy percent of Tubi’s users are Netflix users, and Massoudi sees this as a good thing. “I’m very bullish about SVOD businesses,” he says. “Ultimately, AVOD will have a larger share of viewership, but SVODs will be very successful in driving consumers to marquee titles that they spend a lot of money on.
“It’s the same role played by broadcast TV and cable 10, 15 years ago. We’re like broadcast TV versus the premium SVOD services are like premium cable networks like HBO.”
Massoudi sees a greater parallel between Tubi and YouTube: an easy-to-navigate channel with an “ocean” of ever-changing content that you don’t have to pay for. Also like YouTube, Tubi is not about the top handful of titles that people are watching but about the range of its content. “It’s really about going deep and understanding what our users want to watch and how do we find more fit?”
To find that fit, Tubi has invested heavily in its recommendation engine to help rotate and surface all those titles for users in a relevant way. This technology “has really been our weapon in the ecosystem,” Massoudi says. “That’s why we’ve grown so much, despite the fact that we don’t have an irrational spending strategy.”
(As for companies who have a less practical spending strategy, Massoudi mentions Quibi. “I hope they figure it out,” he says. “But this strategy of ‘Let’s put all the dollars into one big launch and hope for the best’—that’s akin to a movie release strategy. It’s very unlike what tech companies tend to do, which is an incremental increase in investment.”)
Another weapon in Tubi’s arsenal is its new perch within Fox as its streaming service. In upfront negotiations with advertisers this year, Tubi was bundled up with Fox’s TV lineup. In an interview with Ad Exchanger last month, Mark Rotblat, Tubi’s chief revenue officer, said, “We are one of the pillars in the Fox portfolio.”
“Our teams have gone to joint clients with one message,” he went on. “The future will be about strengthening partnerships across” that portfolio “with sponsorships and custom packages.”
While doing this, Tubi has also been working to make its ads less interruptive and repetitive, proving that it can walk the fine line between keeping both advertisers and consumers happy.
Like all advertising platforms, Tubi suffered in the wake of the onset of COVID-19. But the company has managed to recover quickly, Massoudi says, due to its real-time bidding interface. This allows advertisers far more flexibility when it comes to bidding on inventory. Instead of allocating advertising dollars weeks and months ahead of time, as is the norm in the TV industry, Tubi allows agencies to determine that number on a weekly and even daily basis.
Kids programming is the one area where Tubi does seem to be taking on Netflix and Hulu.
Late last year it launched Tubi Kids, which has over 1,200 children’s movies and TV shows, including How to Train Your Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and popular series such as Sonic the Hedgehog and The Wiggles.
Tubi offers parental controls and limits the content to age-appropriate titles—something that makes it very unlike YouTube. “We wanted to create an environment that is safe for parents and that lets kids browse around,” says Massoudi. In other words, kids scrolling through titles won’t come across an R-rated movie in the section. The company is compliant with COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), making it all the more safe.
Indeed, turning Tubi into a platform to help parents entertain kids may be Tubi’s greatest leverage in the streaming wars and is an important differentiator—in the AVOD space, the Roku Channel is the only platform that offers a similar service.
But Massoudi stands by his vow to keep Tubi in its own lane, maintaining that he has no interest in the SVOD business model and shelling out money for lavish new shows and movies. “It’s like a grocery store that sells a carton of milk for a penny,” he says. “It’s not shocking that you get a large amount of traffic in the store. But a) is it rational? And b) is it sustainable? When it’s small and you bury the cost under the biggest umbrella, you can announce these big growth numbers. But is it ever going to be a rational business? I think that remains to be seen.”
Meanwhile, Tubi will be recreating what you liked about TV to begin with—with fewer ads and more surprises.