Five years ago, the free, ad-supported streaming service Crackle tried to make a splash by moving out of the NewFronts and becoming the first streamer to hold an upfront presentation instead. As then-general manager Eric Berger explained to Adweek at the time, “We want to send the message that we are a premium streaming TV network.”
A lot has changed since then, both in the industry and specifically at Crackle. In March 2019, Sony sold a majority stake in the platform to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment Inc. (CSSE), partnering on a new venture called Crackle Plus, which includes Crackle and other ad-based videos on demand (AVOD) streamers like Popcornflix. A year into the new venture, the platform is looking to send the same message to the industry as it did in 2015, but this time it is returning to the NewFronts to do so.
“It was the perfect time, we thought, to reconnect with the buying community and explain what we have been up to in the last 12 months and also our vision for the business, which has evolved quite a bit since the old days,” said Crackle Plus president Philippe Guelton. “We’ve worked really hard to retool the company.”
Guelton gave Adweek an exclusive early look at Crackle Plus’ NewFronts presentation, a 35-minute video that will stream on Monday afternoon. The company is touting its “viewer first” approach to advertisers, highlighted by an expanded, evolved programming slate and two new formats to improve the ad experience for users of the AVOD platform.
Crackle offers roughly half the ad load of linear TV—10 minutes per hour or seven and a half minutes per hour for users who log into the service—but the platform is preparing two new formats to continue to improve the ad experience, including one that will cut the ad load even more significantly.
Freeview, which Crackle created with TrueX, will allow viewers to engage with an interactive ad unit running at the beginning of a Crackle original or exclusive series and then watch the rest of the program ad-free. “That’s something we believe brands are going to be really excited about, where they can underwrite an ad-light experience for the consumer,” said Guelton.
And Jumbotron gives marketers access to the first autoplaying programming slot on Crackle’s homepage, which autoplays when viewers enter, where they can share branded content, trailers or a full episode of a sponsored show.
Update: During its presentation, Crackle Plus execs said that for the first agency partner to commit to Crackle Plus in this upfront, the company will donate 5% of that commitment back to promote a charity of that agency’s choice.
Since last year’s acquisition, CSSE has broadened the platform’s slate to include not only Crackle’s legacy “escapist” entertainment but also uplifting content “that inspires and empowers our users in their daily life,” said Guelton. “It couldn’t be more relevant in this day and age.”
During the pandemic, Crackle created the Homeschool Channel in just 30 days to help parents that needed educational content. The platform also rolled out new channels devoted to sports and DIY content and will now be adding verticals focused on music and pets.
Crackle and Popcornflix users currently have access to more than 10,000 movies and TV episodes, double the library size from a year ago. Crackle said its audience has grown 40% since it began rolling out two new originals or exclusives monthly, beginning last October.
Between AVOD services Crackle and Popcornflix and its ad partnerships with brands like Funimation, Crunchyroll and now also Jukin Media, Crackle Plus now reaches over 30 million active users, according to Guelton.
Crackle saw a 20% increase in viewership as most consumers were sheltering in place during March and April. That number has been “receding slightly” in May and June, but is still well ahead of a year ago, said Guelton, who expects continued growth.
According to Guelton, Crackle Plus ad sales chief Darren Olive refers to the platform as “TV with benefits” because advertisers can buy TV content “with all the benefits of digital capabilities in terms of addressable audience and targeting.”
The company also points to research data from Magid, Nielsen and iSpot.tv, indicating that 80% of Crackle viewers say they don’t watch linear TV. It gives advertisers the opportunity to reach what Guelton calls “the unreachables—and we can do that with greater efficiency than regular TV.”
With more consumers cutting the cord and also faced with a growing number of pricey subscription video on demand (SVOD) players, “AVOD has a huge, huge future, especially if we pay attention to the advertising experience,” said Guelton.
Crackle goes for Broke
The company’s new content slate includes nearly 200 hours of new original Crackle programming. Most of the shows come from Landmark Studio Group, the production company CSSE created last October to build out its original scripted and unscripted offerings on the platform.
Crackle’s lineup is highlighted by Season 2 of Going From Broke, a reality series executive produced by Ashton Kutcher about the national crisis of student loan debt. The first Crackle original series following CSSE’s acquisition last year, the show was not “an obvious topic,” said Guelton, but “we thought it was an important social issue.” Indeed, the show became Crackle’s most viewed show ever, said Guelton, with 16 million streams in Season 1; Season 2 will air next year.
The other new shows illustrate how Crackle has branched into new genres under CSSE, including docuseries, like History of Gangster Rap, and property series, like World’s Smartest Homes. Following the success of basketball-themed On Point, which had 14 million streams, Crackle has ordered three new sports docuseries: Road to Race Day, an inside look at Nascar; Anything Is Possible, following NBA champion Serge Ibaka as he returns home to the Republic of Congo; and Sports Confidential, looking at biggest scandals in sports history.
Crackle also has picked up several scripted series more similar to its Sony roots, including Spides, a sci-fi thriller about a woman trying to regain her memory, who uncovers an alien conspiracy; Safehaven, a high school comic book artist trapped in an alternate reality from her own graphic novel; and Flagrant, starring Michael Rapaport as a disgraced former college basketball star who returns to coach his old team.
Its new original films for the coming year include Wally’s Wonderland, starring Nicolas Cage as a drifter working at a condemned theme park, who ends up battling demonic animatronics.
As Crackle adds new content, it is also working on finding additional distribution partners. It joined the Plex platform last month, and today is announcing new agreements with Xfinity Flex and fuboTV. Guelton said Crackle has another “half dozen deals in different stages of discussion.”
CSSE has even bigger plans for Crackle Plus in the coming year, said Guelton. “We have an unlimited opportunity for growth, not only through our own platforms but maybe the addition of new ones, whether through new launches, acquisitions or partnerships.”