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Michael Cerda, CPO for Streaming at TelevisaUnivision, Talks Building and Growing the World’s Largest Spanish-Language Streaming Service

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In my interview with Michael Cerda, CPO for streaming at TelevisaUnivision, he discusses the from-the-ground-up rebuild he implemented when he arrived at the company. He describes how—in just nine months—his team assembled and scaled the tech stack dri­ving ViX, the world’s largest Spanish-language streaming service, which has live-streaming, AVOD, SVOD, and FAST offerings.

Cerda explains the how and why of the build versus buy and other decisions they made at each step in the process, from apps to APIs to CMS to EPG design, to deliver easy lean-back experiences to viewers who want them, improve content discoverability, and minimize streaming time-to-view. He also explores how, coming from a U.S.-based streaming background at Disney+, he adapted his approach to accommodate differences in Latin American viewers’ expectations and technical requirements for how they access and consume streaming and VOD content. In addition, Cerda discusses the platform’s AVOD/SVOD mix and how that will be evolving in 2024.

Nadine Krefetz: Tell me about ViX.

Michael Cerda: ViX is the first large-scale Spanish-speaking streaming service featuring original content, live sports, and news, as well as Televisa and Univision programming. It’s available on all major mobile platforms, connected TV devices, and online at ViX.com.

We merged with Televisa partway through the build. There were people that were already at Univision (with a U.S. streaming service called PrendeTV), and there were people on the Televisa side that had a product called Blim TV, and there was a company that we had acquired, which was the original ViX, providing AVOD.

We launched as an AVOD service a year ago in March. About 3 months later, we added SVOD. The idea is to create a sampling opportunity for people to come in and with no friction, find something to watch. We have over 75,000 hours of content and more than 100 channels.

Krefetz: Tell me about your background before you joined ViX.

Cerda: I oversee [the digital arm and streaming] from a product and tech standpoint. I joined from Disney+, having just come off of a major build where we’d gotten 100 million paying subscribers, so I was excited to apply the playbook, but also tune it to the market we were building for. We launched in the U.S., Mexico, and all of Spanish-speaking [Latin America] all at once. A lot of times, you launch in one ZIP code first to make sure things are working. So, we had all kinds of diligence in and around how to make this work out of the gate.

Krefetz: Why did you decide to replace your tech stack after arriving at ViX?

Cerda: ViX, Blim, and Prende were all built on different tech stacks. ViX and Blim were homegrown, and Prende had been built by a third party. We actually didn’t keep anything; we built everything on a new stack. All content is stored in the cloud. Akta’s [media content platform] is our source of truth for metadata and video storage.

The content and metadata were naturally different [on each platform]. We had a requirement for internal editors to be able to program any and all of that content to new ViX, which would have its own specific merchandising style. Building our own CMS allowed us to standardize on these different content sections/layouts in the app, such as VOD, EPG, collections, hero sections, etc.

From the technology perspective, our CMS is a React application (also the web app); on the back end, we use RESTful APIs for editor permissioning and for our other microservices to interact with.

[Even though we chose to rebuild from the ground up,] it’s not to say that there weren’t good [legacy components] to use. It’s just that at the scale that we were going for with this new ViX platform, we were going to need to surpass the scale of the combination of all three.

TelevisaUnivision platforms ViX, ViX+, Blim TV, and PrendeTV

Akta’s media content platform is ViX’s “source of truth” for metadata and video storage

An English-language ViX EPG

Krefetz: When it came to individual elements of your tech stack, did you decide to build or buy, and how did you choose?

Cerda: We chose to build our own apps, APIs, and CMS. Our apps have VOD, news, sports, and live channel sections that are EPG-based (which we also built).

Different viewers want to view different ways. Some like VOD because they may be more familiar with browsing, but others like to lean back. If I know you’re coming and watching in that EPG view, I want to get you there when you launch the app versus making you navigate and browse.

When it comes to streaming time-to-view, you want to optimize that, because if viewers don’t find something to watch quickly, they tend to go somewhere else. It was important for us to build our own apps and control and optimize the performance of the load time of the app.

Krefetz: How much time did you have to build your apps?

Cerda: Nine months. First, we launched on web, iOS, Android, Samsung, and Roku. Roku is a fabulous platform for us, very big on the CTV side. Then we added the rest of the CTV platforms. In recent months, we’ve launched on Hisense, Vita, LG, and Android TV.

Krefetz: Why build a CMS?

Cerda: We built it because we knew we wanted to tailor the experience for the viewer, and we knew we were going to have a range of viewer types to account for.

When you think of the way we approach streaming in the U.S., it’s a little bit different in Latin America. There are different considerations, different phone types, and there’s not a lot of processing power on a lot of their phones. There’s also a really heavy Chromecast audience.

We want to be able to create programming interfaces which yield optimal experiences for those different audiences and different places. We want to program for somebody enjoying a movie at night after dinner on CTV, and we also want to make it so that a person who’s working during the day can watch something from their phone if it’s on a 3G connection.

There are a lot of performance and layout considerations to [think about] when serving these audiences. Certain layouts are heavier and take longer to load, and having our own CMS was really critical to building and enabling the flexibility for our team to program.

Krefetz: What components did you buy instead of building in-house?

Cerda: We didn’t think it was strategic for us to build the player plumbing when we can get a SaaS offering and have the advantage of them being at scale. That was super important, because we were not only launching quickly, but then the following November, we had the World Cup to stream. In Mexico, there’s a lot of volume.

We followed that up in the spring with another major live event, a Mexican Big Brother-like show called La Casa de los Famosos, where they put people into this house to live together for eight weeks around the clock, with multiple cameras and audience voting. That was a crazy amount of live traffic, but it was not as bursty as everybody joining to watch the World Cup.

The first couple of weeks, we actually had it in front of the paywall. It had ads, pre-rolls, mid-rolls, skippable ads—all the different ad formats. A few weeks in, we put it behind the wall, where it was ad-free and available just to subscribers.

Krefetz: Who are some vendors you’re working with for ad-supported and subscription shows?

Cerda: Akta provided the player, titles, and subtitles in English and Spanish. We’re very closely partnered with Google. One new part of the stack was using the Google Cloud CDN. Identity is provided by Okta, and payments and subscription management are provided by Recurly.

Krefetz: How did the viewer voting work on La Casa de los Famosos?

Cerda: The voting is focused on which contestants stay or leave the house. You can watch on ViX, and then you vote from your phone. The voting was phenomenal. There was so much engagement.

Streaming the World Cup on ViX

ViX’s La Casa de los Famosos show features viewer voting for heightened engagement

Krefetz: Are you running WebRTC for voting?

Cerda: We use REST via a third-party vendor.

Krefetz: Were there other interactive elements?

Cerda: On ViX, you could also choose to view different cameras of the same show. So you might want to view a specific room, and you could do that.

We also did a wrap-up and show highlights from the night before to let people catch up on past episodes, and we would create additional snippets of content out of that.

Krefetz: How did you build product awareness?

Cerda: When you’re a streamer, you like to be where people are. We’ve got a very strong distribution team that helped us get partnerships with the different devices and build FAST channel relationships. Now we’re on pretty much all the CTV platforms.

Krefetz: How do you handle payment and costs?

Cerda: We accept credit cards everywhere and cash in Mexico through OXXO. The U.S. pricing is $6.99 monthly or $39.99 annually. Mexico starts at a discounted $99 MXN per month ($119 regularly) or $499 MXN per year. In Colombia, the price is $22.900 COP monthly or $124.900 annually.

Krefetz: What’s next for ViX?

Cerda: What we didn’t do overnight were some of the more retention-based features which we’re actually launching right now. For example, we launched on Chromecast. We’re coming up on adding multiple profiles. These are table stakes features.

If you look across the different streaming services, some have hundreds or thousands of engineers and product people. We didn’t have that many when we were starting out, so we had to be sort of ruthless in how we prioritized.

Going into 2024, we’re certainly focused on continuing to be stable and to scale well, but also on driving retention. We do a great job at acquisition and bringing people in, but we’re just now rolling out the features that are going to keep people watching.

When we launched, we wanted it to be without friction for a given viewer to come in and just start watching, but now we’re taking measures to try to activate them better, to try to give them the right cold start experience or maybe even get them to register.

Krefetz: What are your content personas like?

Cerda: A lot of our content programming is kind of one-size-fits-all. We want to personalize the experience and understand why viewers are here and what they’re looking for.

Krefetz: How do you do this?

Cerda: One important approach to that is making sure you have the right metadata so that you can make better recommendations and personalization. When you look at the old TV guide, you see the name of the show and maybe a synopsis, and if you click into it, maybe you see who the actors are. In streaming, you need a much broader set of metadata than that. So, we’re doing a lot with AI to understand what are the outer edges of that metadata that we can triangulate in deeper ways, thus providing a better personalized experience.

In 2024, we want to make the experience unique to each viewer so that we can activate them sooner and retain them for longer.

Krefetz: What do your viewers prefer, ad-supported or subscription?

Cerda: Our audience leans more heavily toward AVOD, but we’re reaching 40 million between both. It’s interesting when you look at our audience to actually have an AVOD and an SVOD [offering] in one experience. You’re starting to see more of that, but it’s usually SVOD adding AVOD tiers. We went the other way—we started with AVOD but added SVOD as a tier.

We have a funnel there. You get people into watching AVOD, and you let them sample some of the SVOD stuff. You hope that excites them and helps them want to continue subscribing, but you don’t have to, because we have a healthy AVOD business too. If somebody churns out of SVOD, they’re just going into AVOD viewing.

Krefetz: Since you’ve been doing AVOD for a while, is there an average amount of advertising now that’s going into a half-hour show or
in a piece of content that you can share?

Cerda: It’s variable. We’ve played around with different ad loads over time, and we try to optimize it. We’re trying to get to a place where we can vary based on your tenure as a cohort. Sometimes, you just want to get out of the way and let people watch, but you want them to know there are ads at the same time. It’s a balance. We’ve toyed with it, and we continue to daily. It’s too variable to give you one basic answer.

When we launched, it was all about can we support VOD, live, FAST, dynamic ad insertion, and DRM, and we wanted to be able to scale all of that. And that’s what we were able to do on the AVOD side.

On the SVOD side, from a viewer perspective, we wanted to make it obvious as to what is premium and why you might want to subscribe. You don’t want to show people so much premium stuff that it’s a turnoff because some part of your audience is only going to be AVOD. We wanted the ability to merchandise content based on how often a person has been here, whether we know them or not.

ViX takes a “stay out of the way” approach with longtime novelas viewers

Krefetz: Why has DRM been part of your focus since you launched?

Cerda: We do thousands of soccer matches a year. It’s a big draw into ViX, and the licensing agreement contains that DRM requirement. Hollywood movies need DRM as well, and then you want to do it for your own content so that it doesn’t get pirated.

Krefetz: How would you characterize the state of growth in the industry?

Cerda: A year ago, it seemed like Netflix and Disney stopped growing, so everybody started freaking out a little bit. The market is still evolving, which makes it even then more important to think through your build versus buy.

When I was at Disney, we built everything because it all came through the BAMtech acquisition, and that’s what they did for a living. Here, we weren’t going to reinvent all of those wheels because we needed to get to market. But you want to build where it’s strategic and unique for you to build.

Krefetz: How many personas are you targeting?

Cerda: There are three things to target in stream­ing, and this isn’t unique to us. How recently was
somebody here? At what frequency do they come in? How much do they watch?

You need to find the ideal cohort that is driving the most lifetime value. Then you find the most adjacent cohort, and you start thinking about what to do for the adjacent cohort to make them look more like the first.

Sometimes that’s CRM—reminders and messages. Sometimes it’s thinking about how to program for them different­ly. If somebody comes once a month and they’re coming for soccer, what are the things that we might do to get them to watch more soccer? Or when soccer is over, what should I program up next for them? Is it maybe another sports show?

If you’re a heavy novelas viewer, I want to stay out of your way. Some of them have been running for 15–20 years. Viewers want to watch it in order, so we need to merchandise it and show it in the order. You get these delicate decisions to make. Is that viewer watching in chronological order, or are they watching to catch up? We want to optimize for those different experiences.

Krefetz: What do you think about registered versus unregistered viewers?

Cerda: A registered viewer is always a more invested viewer. You’ll see us do more in the coming year with encouraging registrations where you get things like continue watching supported on multiple devices.

I think what’s exciting for us is that we have these cohorts that are becoming very clear, and that just drives better signal.

A lot of it is going to be about, “Hey viewer, welcome to ViX. Thanks for coming by. Tell us a little bit about what you want to find here.” A lot of streamers have done this to help with that cold-start problem. If people know why you’re asking them to do something, and they see that it could benefit them, they’re more than happy to actually answer those questions. For those that don’t want to, they can hit the skip button, and they can find what they want to find.

Krefetz: Which is the most popular app that you’re running? Does it vary by country?

Cerda: I would say Android is by far the largest adopted.

Krefetz: Are you noticing distinctive viewing patterns in different countries?

Cerda: We do recognize different patterns. There’s also in some cases programming differences. When we did the World Cup, for example, that was in Mexico. It was not in the U.S., so that drove a lot of viewing there.

Krefetz: When does content go from TV to streaming?

Cerda: We’ll air a TV show and have it on streaming the next day for people to catch up. Not all streaming content is available on broadcast. Broadcast and streaming are different offerings. Some of the novelas are catch-ups from broadcast, but not the majority.

Krefetz: Are you doing ad replacement for broadcast content on streaming, or is this an old concept that doesn’t apply anymore?

Cerda: On ads, we do dynamic ad insertion, which means that the broadcast ads are replaced with digital ads on ViX. We don’t run the live broadcast/linear ads burned in, but rather, we monetize them digitally.

Our ad sales team sells across all of it. So, in a lot of cases, you’re going to get the same ads, because perhaps a certain advertiser is buying programmatic, and in that case, that wasn’t an ad that our sales team went out and sold per se. Somebody is buying in an exchange.

Krefetz: Are you allowed to add interactive features on any of the sports broadcasts?

Cerda: We’re able to. We have not done them yet. It’s an area we would like to get into.

Ten years ago, when I built out Vevo, the music video platform, we tried so many different interactive things, and what we ultimately learned is to stay out of the way.

You want to honor that primary viewing experience. When we do decide to do more interactive features, I would say we’ll probably do them more on a second-screen basis, rather than muddying up what was otherwise a beautiful soccer match or whatever else on your CTV.

Krefetz: Do you have any other business guidance?

Cerda: From a business perspective, it’s always important to instrument ourselves from an analytics perspective to look at performance.

Every day, we look at a dashboard of how we’re streaming, how the player experience is. We’re checking logs. We’re checking alerts. We’re looking at how do we get on top of those so that we can maintain a 99.99 availability?

Those things are all important, especially when you’re in the SVOD business, because if people are paying for something with their hard-earned money, that experience must be premium.

Nadine Krefetz has a consulting background providing project and program management for many of the areas she writes about. She also does competitive analysis and technical marketing focused on the streaming industry. Half of her brain is unstructured data, and the other half is structured data. She can be reached at nadinek@realitysoftware.com or on LinkedIn.

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