Newsy’s Ahmed Al-Kalby on Why OTT Data Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

“The numbers can also overstate successes — as well as problems,” he says

Now more than ever, content companies are using data to help navigate their programming decisions. Everything from how users are watching video (TV vs. laptop vs. cellphone) to what platforms they use is taken into consideration. While data is undoubtedly a powerful weapon, it can be a double-edged sword that shouldn’t be swung carelessly, says Newsy director of OTT Ahmed Al-Kalby.

Al-Kalby, who joined the Newsy team as its first director of OTT programming in March, has spent the last five years working on OTT products for USA Today and the ad-supported streaming TV service Xumo. Drawing from his experience in VOD curation, live programming and implementation of in-app promotions, he said that businesses can easily get lost in chasing the numbers “and lose sight of what their audience comes to their app for.”

“The numbers can also overstate successes — as well as problems — so the human element of thinking about what the user experience is as important as what’s on paper,” Al-Kalby said. “My goal is to make sure we use the data to support the decisions we make to grow the Newsy platform while keeping focus on the journalistic mission that draws an audience to Newsy in the first place: transparent and objective news and information.”

This is just one of the objectives Al-Kalby has been tasked with at Newsy, where he must navigate the company through an increasingly crowded OTT market. Here, Al-Kalby discusses Newsy ‘sfuture relationship with OTT and how its programming strategy on apps will differ from its cable channels.

1. Why does Newsy need a director of OTT programming and what are you bringing to the company?

Newsy is one of the nation’s fastest-growing news networks and one of the most highly rated news channels on the major streaming devices. As Newsy continues to see success on streaming devices, it is important to recognize that competition is going to escalate quickly and the landscape of OTT is ever-changing. I plan to — along with our fantastic developers, product managers, innovative sales teams and award-winning journalists —  help put us in a position to iterate quickly and, ultimately, serve our audience with even more attention to the details of the consumer experience.

Newsy launched the O&O apps at a time when we were focused on producing exclusively short-form news of the day — basically under-two-minute packages covering the day’s headlines. That translated to an incredibly simple but effective programming strategy for OTT — driven primarily by recency, which has worked very well.

We’ve spent the last year and a half focused on investing in and diversifying our journalism — adding award-winning documentaries, investigative reporting and feature stories to our offering across both OTT and cable platforms. All of that has been incredibly well received by our audience, but that diversification in story length and shelf life did also mean that recency alone could no longer be a programming strategy for our apps, especially as we learn more about our audience’s different viewing habits.

I‘m also looking to optimize the programming strategy around the great content we’re creating with a holistic approach as it relates to the product, ads and functionality. It is important as ever to consider the viewer’s experience when engaging with Newsy and bringing the content they came to see to the forefront.

2.How will your purposed programming strategy on Newsy apps differ from its cable channels?

I’ll lead our team in delivering more of what works for our OTT viewers, like our headline updates that give fact-focused, concise snapshots of what’s happening now without pundits or talking heads. We’ll also look at ways to better surface our award-winning original long-form journalism to viewers that are looking beyond just the daily news.

On our cable channel, we’re also producing incredible live shows that our OTT audiences today have never been exposed to, so we are looking at ways to converge the two audiences.

3. A recent study from Conviva found that vMVPDs (like Xumo) grew 74% faster in Q4 2018 than publisher apps. How does that impact Newsy’s OTT strategy, especially as it relates to allocating resources between its own app and linear channels available on other services?

The numbers are not surprising as the market becomes more and more saturated, so it’s something that is taken into consideration within the overall Newsy OTT strategy. It is as important as ever when it comes to programming the content on deciding what users will want to see and where they will see it — whether that consumption is through our O&O or promoted on partner platforms. I see the success of vMVPDs as our success, especially as we continue to leverage those partnerships as an opportunity for us to cross-pollinate audiences.

No matter what, whether we’re talking about our apps or partner platforms, we’re delivering opinion-free and solutions-focused journalism that keeps the public informed and contributes to healthy democratic discourse. So we view it as a win to reach audiences wherever they are.

4. There are thousands of OTT apps on the market — 5,000 on Roku alone. Does every content business need one? 

Does every content business need its own app? Certainly not. Like you mentioned, there are thousands of apps in the OTT market and we’re hitting — if not already have hit — that saturation point that mobile saw a few years ago.

The first question a content business should be asking is whether their content actually makes sense for the TV screen, especially in this age where digital content creators are trying to stamp their presence across all devices. If the answer is yes — your content needs to be on the biggest screen in the home — then you should consider OTT as it is the future backbone of TV.

When considering OTT, a content business will need to think about whether the investment in their O&O apps is really worth it versus working with a partner who might already have eyeballs. With the different aggregators and vMVPDs out there, that investment might not be worth it, especially dependent on how niche the content is or how small the content libraries are.

For Newsy, the decision was made to invest in the OTT app business and it has proven to be a fruitful choice with the tremendous growth its seen. Audiences cutting cable still want their news and they want to watch it in a place they’ve always watched their news — on TV. Newsy has differentiated itself by presenting what’s happening now without the opinions and talking heads traditionally associated with cable news that viewers are tired of.

5. When looking at the overall OTT industry, what’s the one question that stumps you?

I’m curious like everyone else to see how users will respond to the fragmentation of content libraries to their own O&O apps while we see growth of aggregators in parallel.

At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the content to the user in the easiest way. We also know fragmentation might cause viewers frustration and fatigue with sifting through different apps, managing various logins and paying a la carte, bringing us back to rebundling through OTT services or audiences carefully selecting a handful of apps to regularly return to. Ultimately those bringing great unique content in a user-friendly and accessible way will come out on top and that’s what we’ve been doing here at Newsy.

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