Studio+ and Blackpills: One Concept, Two Destinies
This article was co-written by Alexandre Pierrin and Cassandra Binet.
Less than two years ago, two web series apps that were to revolutionize mobile video consumption in French-language markets if not the entire world were launched with great pomp: Studio+ and Blackpills. Both were financed by media giants and were designed to take advantage of two trends that have been widely confirmed since then: the time spent viewing video on mobile devices has increased and series are taking up more and more space in streaming service offers. Against this background, the successful launch of these mobile apps dedicated to series was a sure bet...
Whereas Studio+ went out of business in 2018, Blackpills has just signed a new partnership with telephone operator Orange... What can possibly explain such different trajectories for products that are identical in appearance?
Apps: a GAFA-dominated hyper-competitive market
Before differentiating them, let’s first point out that the content produced by Blackpills and Studio+ is strongly influenced by the economic and technical model that their distribution medium involves, namely the smartphone app.
More than ever before, the smartphone is key for broadcasters. Indeed, even though the personal computer remains the main screen used to view online television content, its share of total consumption has been gradually decreasing since 2011. Studies released in February 2018 by the Médiamétrie agency reveal that online computer viewing is down by 30 percentage points (from 71% to 40.4%) to the benefit of television screens (+14 points, i.e., a total of 37.5%) and tablets and mobile devices (+15%, i.e., from 5.6% to 22.1%). Mobile audiences spend 87% of their time on apps, half of which on social network apps, games and video platforms. Among them, 15–24 year-olds use the apps even more intensively on their mobile devices: 92% of their total time, 70% of which on social network apps, games and videos.
These usage patterns evolve quickly! The Studio+ and Blackpills teams therefore need to constantly adapt to evolving uses. As such, Philippe Haïm, Blackpills’ former creative director, declared this during an interview he gave to Mediakwest:
“Blackpills is a mixed [model] company. It’s both a content and technology company. It’s a company that creates series and shows as well as an app and, therefore, a user experience. That’s how we view ourselves. We operate highly developed technology and content departments which both seek to collaborate on an ongoing basis. Our claim is that they are inseparable.”
Complex technological support can be a brake on the actors’ editorial promise. Cassandra Binet analyzed the comments in her master’s thesis titled “L’innovation numérique éditoriale de l’audiovisuel sur mobile: les cas de BlackPills et Studio+”* and dealing with app stores. Her work indeed shows that users experience a host of technical issues that may eventually convince them to uninstall the apps: the impossibility to register because they never receive the access code sent by text message in the case of Blackpills, a bug that prevents access to the app (namely once updated) or yet the lack of compatibility with the user’s terminal.
In addition, mobile is also a competitive territory on which audiovisual actors are facing the digital giants who have a monopoly and create a certain level of dependency among audiovisual stakeholders that must be taken into consideration: in a press release dating back to February 2018, the Médiamétrie agency informed us that the ten apps most consulted in France all belong to GAFA!
Although these apps do not involve audiovisual content only, they nevertheless compete for mobile audiences’ budget and available time. According to a CAS study titled Plateformes et accès aux contenus audiovisuels, digital platforms are perpetually transforming economic and competitive issues in the audiovisual sector. Thus, when we evoke competition with Studio+, Frédéric Jacquette further insists on the competition with other platforms and social networks:
“We instead compete against the other apps in the phone: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram... All of the time spent on apps other than Blackpills. Both uses and contents are in competition on mobile seeing as Netflix remains one of our competitors. Nevertheless, we are facing audiovisual competitors in addition to the other apps!”
Within this competitive market, Blackpills and Studio+ have not adopted the same economic strategies or editorial positionings. There is reason to question the factors that lead to the failure of one and relative success of the other.
Studio+, the failure of the premium strategy
Studio+, launched in France in November 2016, adopted a premium strategy from the onset. The attachment to the Canal + media brand is obvious at an editorial level because the logo shares the characteristics of the famous encrypted chain’s logo. From an economic standpoint, the app can be accessed on a paid subscription basis, as is the case with Canal + since its creation.
Finally, the editorial positioning adopted by Studio+ illustrates the intent to create a mobile competitor against Netflix by proposing high-quality original series to international audiences. The average budget allocated to a season of any given series on Studio+ was one million euros, which represents a very high amount when it comes to a French webseries.
However, as revealed by the comments analyzed by Cassandra Binet in her thesis, this proposal was not correctly interpreted by consumers, who perceived it more as an app used to replay successful series than as an original content catalogue. Consequently, few users were willing to pay for content of which they had no knowledge.
Blackpills, the new television of the millenials
Launched in Europe in May 2017, Blackpills also proposes series, in addition to daily or weekly shows of varied themes first launched in France before eventually being exported to the United States. To present these shows, the company calls upon up-and-comers such as humorist Yassine Belattar, who discusses current affairs with guests in Indéfendable, or Agathe Auproux, commentator in the Touche pas à mon post show on French channel C8, who is interested in football along with Ketchup Maillot.
The brand thereby communicates as a form of “new television” targeting millenials. Blackpills adopts a familiar tone with users and uses (and abuses) drugs as a metaphor in reference to binge watching addictive series. The attraction among millenials is easy to explain. In the same study released in February 2018, Médiamétrie demonstrated that television is the most popular medium in France, way ahead of the Internet: the French spend an average of 3 hours and 42 minutes per day in front of the television set and 1 hour and 28 minutes on the Internet. The balance between television and the Internet is different among 15–24 years-olds: they indeed now spend more time on the Internet (1 hour and 38 minutes) than in front of the television (1 hour and 26 minutes) and there are more daily Internet users in this age group than TV viewers.
Finally, contrary to Studio+, the offer is not associated with any media brand and is 100% free. Blackpills’ economic model is based on seducing users with a no-cost and ad-free offer to quickly increase the user base. It is in part because the offer is free that Blackpills was able to take advantage of the openness of less demanding users. Indeed, despite it being impossible to consume series in the absence of a connection or to transpose them to the television set using ChromeCast, as proposed by Studio+, Blackpills has experienced a greater deal of success. As such, Blackpills’ Frédéric Jacquette makes the following claim:
“The mobile-first aspect is always present, but we realize that, when it comes to uses, consumers wish to watch the content differently as the day evolves. There is content that I consume on mobile when I am at work, other content that I watch on my computer when I am at home and so forth. It depends on when content is consumed and what devices are available when it is consumed.”
Having convinced a sufficient mobile audience, Blackpills was able to attract advertisers and now offers a free model with advertising (freemium). The group’s recent announcements are indicative of its intent of proposing a low-cost subscription model to its loyal users who would like to benefit from the comfort of advertising free premium viewing. As such, Daniel Marhely, cofounder of Blackpills, estimates that anywhere between 5% and 10% of the audience would be willing to pay in exchange for access to the content of the SVOD platform. Initially designed as a FVOD (free video on demand) service, Blackpills is now increasingly focussing on a SVOD (subscription video on demand) and AVOD (advertising video on demand) strategy.
The triumph of free content and the importance of being present on all channels
We will thereby note that the subscription model used by Studio+ did not convince users. Blackpills is the player that implemented a business model that—to this day—appears to be more viable and better adapted to the market given the low propensity to pay for content seeing as content is available free from most television channels, free platforms like YouTube and, more largely, the fact that most content that is viewed on mobile originates from social networks. Add to that the fact that Blackpills also redesigned its editorial offer with flux programs that give birth to new content at a lower cost. For example, the Régis C’est Chic show launched in April 2018 deals with fashion in a humoristic manner by simply filming the host against a green backdrop with two smartphones.
Furthermore, at both Studio+ and Blackpills, the mobile-first offer has evolved to enable the distribution of content on all devices, namely through a SVOD web platform and ChromeCast. Finally, the offline model already proposed by Studio+ and under development at Blackpills renders content accessible at all times. Sooner or later, these actors incorporated the need to be present on all devices, i.e., to produce new adapted content or make existing content accessible: today’s consumers want to be able to begin watching a series on their tablet during breakfast, continue watching it during their commute and finish watching it on television once back home in the evening. Distribution on a single device does not correspond to the logic of content ubiquity more often referred to as “atawad” (anytime, anywhere, any device). Note that such a level of consumption flexibility is a must and that users will difficultly accept to pay for a service proposing a series if they are not able to binge watch it as they please.
We could conclude by stating that Blackpills successfully applied the precepts of the web (free and diverse content showcasing influencers), whereas the difficulties of Studio+ can be explained by the fact that it used television revenue (large-scale production, pay-per-view service, established media brand). In both cases, the importance of multichannel distribution also became naturally obvious over time. It remains to be seen if Blackpills will succeed in leaving a durable mark in the complex and evolving world of online videos.
* The thesis written by Cassandra Binet titled "L’innovation numérique éditoriale de l’audiovisuel sur mobile: les cas de BlackPills et Studio+" was published in October 2018 at l'École des hautes études en sciences de l'information et de la communication (CELSA) de l'Université de la Sorbonne.