Competition is fierce between the big streamers such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Peacock, and Paramount+. But there's a pretty good argument to be made that the battle is even more brutal between the smaller, niche streamers. They generally have fewer resources and often ask subscribers to pay a monthly fee that isn't that much less than they would pay for a larger service. The most successful ones develop a programming mix that has enough of an audience to thrive. But even then, getting the word out to their potential customers is a challenge.
Topic was launched by First Look Media in late 2019 as a Netflix-style streamer curated to appeal to young "culture cravers." Since its launch, the service has continued to tweak its programming mix under the guidance of General Manager Ryan Chanatry. Previous to joining Topic, he had worked at Netflix as Director, Global Marketing Insights. So he is familiar with the resources of a larger streamer but also has a sense of the best places to thrive when facing Borg-level resources.
I recently spoke with Ryan about Topic and some of the challenges of carving out an audience in the very competitive world of smaller SVODs. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity:
What is your overall philosophy for programming Topic? What kind of programming do you think is the best fit for your subscribers?
What we've found - especially in the last year - is that we're defining it as "elevated crime and justice." So that can mean anything that is crime, non-procedural, suspense, mystery - thrillers, including political shows like Les Sauvages and 1992. And then things that are more traditionally thought of as Crime Noir or Nordic Noir: The Bridge, The Killing, which is coming next month. Arctic Circle, Pagan Peak, which have been really strong performers for us.
So that's where we've seen really great engagement. And it gives us a strong differentiation in the space, from some of the other offerings in crime, which are equally engaging but different. Spiral is a good example. Or a CSI-type show which doesn't have as strong a thru-line across the episodes.
One of the frequent discussions in the industry when it comes to larger streamers such as Netflix is whether or not American audiences are comfortable watching foreign-produced productions. Are they willing to embrace shows that include dubbed audio or subtitles? And it sounds like that isn't necessarily an issue for your subscribers?
So I think we are naturally attracting those viewers who are most inclined to watching subtitles. But the challenge that we're facing is that Netflix and now HBO, to a large extent, are defaulting foreign-langauge shows to dubbing. And setting up the expectation that everything you watch will be available with English audio.
And it's an interesting question that we're exploring. Who is the Money Heist or Call My Agent audience, who will watch a show that has dubbing?. And is that slightly different than the audience who watches subtitled shows? Or is it vastly different? And that's the big challenge for us. We want to bring the most engaging stories from around the world to our service. And I don't want subtitles to get in the way of that.
But right now, I think we're focused on using subtitles, and we'll explore if there's a place for dubbing on the service and how that works in the U.S. over the next year or so.
You mentioned that larger streamers such as Netflix are heavily invested in international programming. And that strikes me as being another challenge for Topic, because they have deep pockets and a lot of resources. Do you find yourself competing for shows with other platforms, and what is your argument about why a show should be on Topic instead of on a rival streamer?
I think our platform in general makes a pretty strong argument. We're emerging as a pretty powerful place to host these stories. There is so much great programming being made right now - particularly in Europe. The great thing about that growth is that most of those productions are cross-channel, cross-country productions. Which will often mean that there are no global rights available. So for HBO or Amazon, the fact that they can't acquire global rights doesn't entirely knock the show out of consideration. But it makes it much less likely for them.
And we really find that to be our sweet spot. It's the four or five country co-production that doesn't rely on the U.S. or Canada to get made. And now we can make a pretty strong case that the best home for this show in the U.S. and Canada will be on Topic.
That acquisition challenge is somewhat related to the challenge Topic faces with potential subscribers. There are a lot of smaller streamers in the U.S., and while no one is doing quite what Topic does, some of them are in somewhat the same space. So, how difficult is it to cut through all of the competing messages and get people to sample Topic?
That's probably our biggest challenge, particularly over the last eighteen months. There have been so many big launches, and I can't even count the billions of dollars that all the brands have spent.
But we're really looking for that niche. We're looking for that person who connects with our mix of programming. And that is really starting to resonate. We're looking for the people who enjoy binging this particular type of crime, mystery, and noir. They think of themselves in a specific way, and they find a home here.
And we find that some of these people are talking about Topic on places online where these communities form: on Facebook, on Twitter, on other social media. And that particular audience responds to our programming. Our ad on Roku may be shown far fewer times than one for HBO. But when we super target it to the people we think will love it, they click through, and they start watching that show. And for us, we just need to scale that up and get better and better at making people feel that they are joining a community of like-minded viewers when they download our app.
That's been the biggest key to our success in the past six months, especially with our "Summer Of Suspense" slate, and where we're heading with our programming. We want you to go super-deep in this genre of television with us, even if you're familiar with the shows in this space on Netflix or HBO.
Is Topic considering a rollout of some sort of linear streaming channel for ad-supported streaming platforms?
We actually have a channel now on Xumo and that is something we're going to be focusing on in the next few months. We think having a AVOD channel that offers samples of our programming is a good introduction to the service.
You've mentioned the growth at the company and some of the ways the industry has evolved over the past six months or a year. Is Topic where you thought it would be a year ago?
We hit our internal Q2 goals and continue to grow. And we're finding that once people join and begin interacting with our content, they tend to stay. We're still early in that lifecycle and that creation of sales funnels. And each platform is different as well. We have to find the best way to position ourselves on Roku, on Apple, on Amazon, on Amazon Prime. Because we have channels on all of those places as well as our direct interaction.
Each of those has slightly different variables and different things that people watch, and that help them stay. And as we crack those formulas, we're able to accelerate growth. Realizing that "hey, the best thing to offer someone on Roku is this, versus this other title that is more effective on Amazon Prime."
I also think that as we launch The Killing, it's going to bring us attention. It's never been streamed in the U.S. or Canada before - shockingly. But that is going to be one of our calling cards. It will help audiences realize we're here and what we offer.
Similar shows like Borgen have come over here and become very popular. And we weren't able to get Borgen because Netflix jumped in. But The Killing will encourage people to sample us and realize that there are many similar shows that they've missed.
I think we want to crack away at that awareness. Sometimes it's difficult when you put your marketing hat on. It's very humbling out there, with so many services and so much money floating around. But I think there's a large audience for what we do. We're not trying to get to 20 million subscribers. But I think there are hundreds of thousands or low millions of people in the U.S. and Canada who want a service that is different from the mainstream offerings.
We're not trying to argue that Topic is the only streaming service you need. But I think we're creating something that is different and interesting enough that we can successfully live alongside those bigger services. I feel very strongly about that runway, and I think the key for us is to just to get better at everything we do and let some of the great content we have speak for itself.
We have second seasons of two of our biggest shows coming next year. As well as a lot of other great stuff. So we are really at the beginning of the race. People love a great mystery, love a great thriller. And we want to be the home for those people.
You can check out Topic at www.topic.com