All Together Now
Watch Parties Gain Legitimacy as Hulu Takes Co-Watching Mainstream
On May 28, Hulu launched Watch Party, making it the largest streamer to date to jump on this burgeoning trend. As audiences look for ways to connect during the pandemic, co-watching has grown in popularity. It helps make the countless hours we spend in front of a screen less solitary.
What is co-watching and what long-term impact, if any, will it have on video viewing?
Co-watching is a virtualized viewing experience in which two or more people simultaneously (1) watch a video stream, and (2) use social features such as live picture-in-picture comments, real-time reactions, group chat, or video chat to interact. Co-watching is a mash up of the social aspects of live streaming (e.g., chat and reactions) with viewing on-demand video; whether shows, movies, or social video. Co-watching is not to be confused with live streaming, which occurs on sites like Twitch, or in features like Facebook Live or Instagram Live. In live streaming, the video feed is live, whereas it is pre-recorded and on-demand in co-watching.
Social Networks Roots
Given that co-watching is, by definition, a social viewing experience, it is not surprising to find Facebook among its originators.
Facebook launched Watch Parties in 2018, but only to Facebook Groups. The latter allows multiple users—from a handful to hundreds of thousands—to come together to watch synchronized on-demand video, engage in discussions, and share content. Groups can be public (with strangers) or private (amongst acquaintances). An administrator of a Facebook Group could post any public live or recorded video to their Group so that members could collectively view at the same time.
According to Facebook, when the service was launched in 2018, there were more than 12 million Watch Parties in the first six months. Importantly, Facebook claims that Watch Parties attract eight times as many comments as traditional video in Groups. In other words, the right Watch Party can generate robust engagement. The feature proved so popular with Groups that, four months later, Facebook extended it to Pages (which pleased creators), as well as to individual profiles.
At the 2019 F8 conference, Facebook announced several significant changes to its video chat app, Messenger, including a Watch Party integration which allows friends across the country to co-watch a Facebook Watch show. Co-watchers are already accustomed to using Facebook and Messenger to communicate in real time and even to play games together. In fact, users played 1.5 billion “Instant Games” in Messenger upon its 2017 launch.
Launched in mid-2019, Kast (purchaser of key assets of the now-defunct Rabb.it*) is positioned as a free online social space where users can watch movies, play games, take classes, or just hangout. The app can be used with any browser (not just Google Chrome) and it works with almost every xVOD app. On it, up to 20 users can simultaneously view and interact with content.
Kast also offers a paid subscription, which features “uninterrupted, ad-free watch parties,” as well as HD video and the ability to stream both video & webcams at the same time. The cost of Kast Premium is $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year.
(*Rabb.it was shuttered in May 2019 because of its inability to monetize co-watching, the absence of rights to the content it enabled, poor user growth, and the consequent inability to raise new investment. At one time, the service had 3.5 million monthly viewers.)
In 2018, RealNetworks developed a Chrome extension that recorded video-track commentary to play along with content from Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Branded Scener, it was spun off as a separate company in 2019. That same year, Scener announced a new product that synched Netflix content with video chat.
While use of the extension was growing significantly prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it increased dramatically between March and May. For example, the company reported a 15-fold surge during this period.
A key differentiator for Scener is its sanction by major SVOD players such as HBO and Netflix. (TechCrunch confirmed that WarnerMedia reached out to Scener about using the extension to enable co-viewing of HBO Now and HBO Go content.) Sceners’ virtual theater events are limited to 20 concurrent users, one of which controls the “remote.” Scener has been hush-hush as to whether it will support HBO Max; TDG believes this to be inevitable.
In May 2020, Scener launched “a complete rebuild” of its extension, announcing, as well, its plans to tie the knot with more SVOD providers. Hulu and Disney Plus are rumored to be on the short list.
Netflix Party is a Chrome-enabled browser extension that permits users to co-watch Netflix shows and chat about them. While it only supports Netflix viewing, it is not affiliated with the service. The streaming behemoth appears to be in no hurry to file suit, despite Netflix Party’s use of the company’s name and logo. Should it become a nuisance, Netflix will no doubt step in, but at this point the arrangement appears to be a win-win for both.
In April 2020, Netflix Party was updated to v. 1.7.9, which tweaked chat and security features, and expanded the number of servers. If judged by the pace of server additions since its launch several years ago, usage was increasing at a dramatic clip prior to the pandemic, and has been further fueled by stay-at-home restrictions.
On May 28, Hulu announced that it would begin beta testing a proprietary co-watching feature, branded Hulu Watch Party, which allows for synchronized viewing and group chat. Hulu thus becomes the first major SVOD provider to launch its own co-watching feature. (As mentioned previously, HBO and Netflix rely on third-party browser extensions.)
Watch Party is only available to ad-free ($12/month) subscribers age 18 and older, and is limited to certain titles. Unfortunately, the feature currently runs only on PC and Mac computers, and is unavailable on smart TVs, iPhones, or Android. This, however, is only a test and will undoubtedly be modified as user feedback is submitted.
On the same day that Hulu announced its proprietary co-watching feature, Plex, a minor but promising SVOD entrant, publicized its own beta trial of an in-house social video feature called Watch Together. The feature will allow any viewer to play, pause, or “seek around” during a session. As of late May 2020, there were no limits to the number of co-viewers.
Apple, Android, FireTV, and Roku will all support Watch Together. Unlike Hulu, the feature will work with only the service’s free shows & movies, not paid titles. Notably, the beta incorporates a number of third-party chat apps for video, audio, and text communications between co-viewers. While currently free, users will soon need a Plex Pass subscription to use the feature.
As with all xVOD purveyors, Plex’s social video feature is a work in progress, and updates will be based on user input.
The global pandemic has driven increased use of internet, video streaming, and social media. It has skyrocketed video conferencing services, especially Zoom. Users are seeking to combine online group experiences with diverting activities, which has led to dance parties on Twitch, trivia nights on Houseparty, co-browsing on Instagram, and now a rise in co-watching.
As restrictions loosen and we re-engage in more traditional non-digital social interaction, time spent using home & personal media, especially video viewing, is generally expected to decline to pre-pandemic levels.
That being said, the use of co-watching will not similarly retreat. In fact, and as with many innovations impacted by the pandemic, co-watching’s diffusion timeline has been catalyzed by recent events. Consequently, we expect by 2022 to see co-watching permitted on all major xVOD platforms.
Lauren Kozak, the author of In Search of an Audience: Quibi’s Post-Pandemic Prospects, User Adoption and Trends in Social Streaming, IGTV, & Facebook Watch, and The Ascent of the Social TV Engager, is our Senior Advisor on Social Media, Analytics, and User Behavior. She has previously held positions for the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, and Britney Spears.