Crackle Will Be the ‘Bedrock’ of New Owner CSS Entertainment’s Streaming Offerings

CEO Bill Rouhana says he'll keep the Crackle and Chicken Soup for the Soul brands separate for now

Investment in original programming and focused SVOD services is coming down the line. Chicken Soup for the Soul, Crackle

The free, ad-supported streaming service formerly known as Sony Crackle might be under new ownership and have a different corporate name, but the platform’s consumer-facing brand isn’t slated to change anytime soon, according to its new CEO.

Sony, which formerly owned and operated Crackle, in March sold a majority stake in the company to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, a result of a nearly year-long effort from Sony to pawn off the streaming service and CSS Entertainment’s ongoing efforts to acquire video on-demand services.

At the time of the announcement, the companies, who didn’t disclose the financial terms of the deal, said they’d create a new joint venture called Crackle Plus, which will encompass Crackle’s advertising video-on-demand (AVOD) business, as well as CSS Entertainment’s existing AVOD and subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms. The deal, which was finalized in May, prompted some confusion about what exactly Crackle Plus would be; CSS Entertainment has since tried to clear that up, saying that Crackle Plus was never intended as a consumer-facing brand name.

While Sony’s name will be removed from Crackle’s branding, Bill Rouhana, the chairman and CEO of CSS Entertainment, told Adweek there are no other immediate plans for the platform to substantially change for consumers. CSS Entertainment’s other brands, which include six AVOD streaming services like Popcornflix, Frightpix and Truli, as well as the SVOD service Pivotshare, will also remain separate entities “for the moment,” Rouhana said.

Down the line, though, Rouhana anticipates the emergence of discrete channels with “clear identities” that are thoroughly integrated for advertisers’ targeting purposes.

“We’ll start to introduce on Crackle and Popcornflix our own original programming, some special exclusive movies that you won’t be able to get elsewhere,” Rouhana said. “We’ll expand into unscripted and scripted programming originals that are exclusive to our networks. We’ll start that process, but that’s a process that over time will be more defined. Gradually the networks will take on a life of their own. It’s evolutionary.”

At the heart of the company’s future streaming ambitions, Rouhana said, is Crackle.

“[Crackle is] the network with the biggest scale right now, the largest number of customers, the most developed technology, the most developed ad-sales force, the most advanced relationship with advertisers and it’s the best-known to customers,” he said during a wide-ranging interview with Adweek. “It’s the flagship in the business. And it’s likely to remain so. … It’s sort of the bedrock upon which we build all the rest.”

The ink has barely dried on CSS Entertainment’s deal with Sony, but Rouhana is already looking for the right acquisition opportunities to continue building out the streaming network’s content library, network of services and tech chops. It’s part of a larger strategy of acquiring a number of AVOD and SVOD services and rolling them into a single unified offering for advertisers. The company has over the last few years acquired A Plus, actor Ashton Kutcher’s digital media company, along with the SVOD service Pivotshare, the Christian media streaming service Trulia and Screen Media, which had operated the free ad-supported service Popcornflix.

AVOD services like the ones CSS Entertainment is buying up are having a moment. As companies like Disney and WarnerMedia prepare to introduce even more subscription video streaming services to an already overflowing array of options, other businesses are betting that consumers will want free, ad-supported options as part of their digital video diets.

To capitalize on that migration, Rouhana is focused on positioning Crackle Plus for success as a loose alliance of streaming services whose viewers are all available for advertisers. That effort has included elevating a slate of Crackle Plus executives, including former She Knows Media CEO and CSS Entertainment svp Philippe Guelton as president. Guelton and three former Sony Pictures Television executives, who were hired earlier this month, are tasked with integrating the networks and unifying the streaming properties’ ad-tech stack to better serve its advertising partners.

The company offers 30- and 60-second ad spots and content sponsorships, where brands can present certain programming with fewer ads, along with in-program brand messaging that can appear in original programming. Original content sponsors have included brands like Adobe, Chegg and State Farm.

Users who sign in and provide information about themselves to the company are served fewer ads—a mechanism of Crackle’s that Rouhana, who called it an attractive and “fair” feature, plans to implement across CSS Entertainment’s other AVOD services.

Rouhana is under no illusions that all of the 26 million people who have created accounts across Crackle Plus’ properties or the 10 million who watch monthly are tuning in exclusively for the company’s original programming, though. That’s why the company’s acquisition strategy has focused on bringing on titles and programming with broad appeal, so that someone who searches “free movies online” or “free TV online” might stick around once they find Crackle’s offerings.

“That’s not really a content-driven or a brand-driven thing,” Rouhana said. “It’s more of a mass migration where people’s habits are changing, and therefore having a fair amount of territory in which they can find you is probably just as useful as having a focused brand identity today.”

As CSS Entertainment grows, though, Rouhana, pointing to Netflix’s massive investments in original programming, said original content will be key. To that end, the company aims not only to invest in broad-appeal programming on free sites, but in a slate of SVOD services that focus on more specific topics. (Pivotshare, the company’s existing SVOD product, already has 25,000 active subscriptions, the company recently reported to shareholders.)

Rouhana said “it’s unlikely” CSS Entertainment will pursue a two-tiered offering like Hulu—with ad-supported and ad-free options. But never say never.

“How can you rule anything out of a business that’s changing at the pace this business is changing in?” he said.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.