In VR Race, Broadcasters Get a Jump on the OTT Disruptors

In sprinting and swimming, how an athlete reacts to the gun—leaping off the block or propelling themselves into the pool—can often make or break a race. This early-mover advantage isn’t confined to athletics. It can propel business fortunes as well.

The gun has clearly sounded in virtual reality (VR), and thousands of players, large and small, have dashed off the blocks to be the first to capitalize on the emerging new video format. Interestingly, traditional TV broadcasters have taken an early lead over most over-the-top (OTT) providers. In doing so, they’ve upended the simple narrative of a staid industry being disrupted by innovative competition.

In VR, the disrupted have become the disruptors.

While it’s still early days, consider what traditional broadcasters have done. They have broadcast a presidential primary debate in VR. They have produced thousands of hours of VR content for the Olympic games. This September, Fox Sports recently offered a live broadcast of a college football in VR in conjunction with Next VR (a startup backed by Comcast and Time Warner). In fact, most of the marquee sporting events of 2016 have had a VR component, including live streams from the games themselves. 2017 should prove no different.

Contrast this with the approach taken by the “disruptors” of the industry. Netflix and Hulu, for instance, aren’t creating native VR experiences but are simply packaging their existing offerings in virtual worlds. You don’t see House of Cards in VR so much as sit in a virtual living room with a virtual TV and watch a traditionally formatted House of Cards on your simulated set. Hulu’s VR app does the same thing, only with more virtual environments to choose from. It’s kind of odd.

Netflix, which has seen major success with its original content, has been relatively cautious in virtual reality—releasing a teaser for its show Stranger Things in VR but staying away from longer-form original VR content. There are hints that Amazon is working on a VR platform, but not much else. Only YouTube has fully embraced virtual reality, which is no surprise given Google’s interest in the category.

One of the challenges facing streaming services is that the kind of dramatic, long-form fictional content that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon produce doesn’t yet lend itself well to virtual reality. Producers and creatives are still experimenting to see what kind of VR content really resonates outside of video games. Peruse VR-centric video apps and you’ll find short form photojournalism/documentary work, marketing shorts and not much else. While there have been several attempts to craft dramatic VR series, the medium has yet to have its break-out hit.

Meanwhile, live events have an immediate draw. For sports in particular, VR enables consumers to view the game as they would from within a stadium, where their head movement determines what they see. With stadium ticket prices climbing and seats to truly major events like the Super Bowl impossible to come by, VR offers a golden opportunity to deliver a lifelike experience to millions of people watching along at home.