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Streaming services are missing this feature if they want to dominate the pandemic era

Streaming services are missing this feature if they want to dominate the pandemic era

Streaming is surging because of coronavirus. With millions of people stuck at home, the services are seeing an influx of subscribers and viewership is up. However, the pandemic era could have another big effect on the streaming world. It could make it more, well, social.

Virtual watch parties over Zoom (ZM) and social products like Netflix Party — a Google Chrome extension that lets far-flung users in separate places watch and chat about movies together — began gaining popularity in March as the first social distancing and stay-at-home orders went into effect.

Of course, people have been watching and talking about — and these days, tweeting about — TV shows and major events in real time since the Golden Age of television. Yet watching a show with people in different places is uncharted territory for most streaming services, which offer the selling point of being able to watch on your own schedule.

With the pandemic increasing the practice of hosting virtual streaming parties, new social tools are providing not just connection in a time of social distancing but a new yet familiar way to keep consumers engaged and subscribing to services.

“Being able to watch virtually with others via streaming, which was practically impossible before, provides inherent value,” Andrew Hare, a senior vice president of research at media consulting firm Magid, told CNN Business. “It helps make the viewing experience more special, particularly during coronavirus. Long term, I think consumers are going to be looking for these features.”

Hare added that for streaming services it can also “mark a point of differentiation and ideally deeper engagement.” That’s incredibly important for streamers as services like Netflix (NFLX), Disney+ and newcomers HBO Max and Peacock compete for consumers’ time and money.

So it’s no wonder why Hulu started to test its own official Watch Party feature.

Jim Denney, Hulu’s vice president of product management, told CNN Business that Hulu Watch Party is the company’s first social feature that allows viewers to virtually watch and chat about content with other people remotely. And it wasn’t even built for the current era; it was developed during the company’s hackathon event last summer.

“We accelerated work on this feature as we recognized the growing need from our viewers for a way to watch Hulu content with those who they weren’t sheltering in place with and felt this was the right time to try out this capability,” Denney said.

He noted that the company’s data show that 61% of Hulu’s customers watch with others within their households.

“That’s why we believe that our viewers would be interested in virtually co-viewing content and why we were motivated to build such a feature,” Denney said.

He added that “rolling it out as a test enables us to learn more and determine if and how we’ll continue to roll features like this out to our community.”

Other services are on the same wavelength.

Bob Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia entertainment and direct-to-consumer, told CNN Business last month that the service plans to incorporate social tools into the new service, which launch last month. (WarnerMedia is the parent company of CNN.)

“I do think there’s a value to being able to connect with friends who are watching similar programs or want to watch with you. On our road map down the line, probably several months after launch, we have plans to start integrating that into the platform,” Greenblatt said. “We won’t have it on day one because there’s so many other things to get finished by the time we launched this thing. But we do think that’s an important aspect, and now more than ever.”

Greenblatt added that he’d “love to see the day where you could have a piece of content in the middle of your HBO Max screen” and “maybe even not unlike a Zoom call, you could have your friends populated around the outer perimeter and actually be able to speak in real time with them.”

Yet challenges remain in making streaming more social, according to Hare, the Magid research director.

“One is building a new behavior, and the other is building the technology and tools,” he said. “If a service is able to reimagine what a social streaming video experience could look like and provides additive value for consumers, you have created a new long-term use case for the technology.”

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