The 18 power players leading the rise of free ad-supported streaming video in 2020

  • Free, ad-supported streaming video is gaining momentum as people spend more time at home amid the pandemic and wallet-conscious consumers look for alternatives to traditional TV.
  • Business Insider is recognizing leaders who are propelling free ad-supported streaming video in 2020.
  • We are highlighting 18 power players, based on a combination of our reporting, nominations from readers, and conversations with industry experts.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

2020 could well end up being known as a breakout year for free, ad-supported streaming video.

Viewership is up across the streaming industry this year as people stay home during the pandemic. Ad-supported platforms from Pluto TV to Tubi have rushed to capitalize on the trend, hoping to appeal to increasingly wallet-conscious amid the economic uncertainty.

Industry leaders say AVOD and free streaming-TV services are moving higher up in the consideration sets of publishers and advertisers, as well as consumers.

A few other things changed recently:

  • Legacy-media companies including ViacomCBS, Comcast, and Fox scooped up some of the biggest players in the sector, including Pluto TV, Xumo, Tubi, and Vudu, legitimizing the sector.
  • Cord-cutting picked up speed, driving people to look for more alternatives to traditional TV.
  • Disney, WarnerMedia and other companies launched new subscription services, and people started experimenting with free offerings to flesh out their personal collections of packages.

"Is it a watershed moment? I think it's a massive accelerant," said Mike O'Donnell, chief revenue officer for smart-TV maker Vizio's platform business.

While overall ad spending is strained, eMarketer estimates the US connected-TV ad spending, which captures most AVOD ad dollars, will grow by 25% this year, because of the sharp lifts in usage amid lockdowns.

The fragmented industry's next big hurdle will be proving that ad-supported streaming can reach mass audiences and lure ad dollars away from traditional TV.

Business Insider is recognizing 18 executives leading the rise of free ad-supported streaming video

For the second year, Business Insider is recognizing the executives who are leading the rise of free ad-supported streaming video.

These 18 power players are helping their companies navigate the evolving TV landscape and pushing ad-supported video industry forward in 2020.

Methodology

We relied on our reporting, nominations from readers, and industry experts to narrow down the finalists. We chose them based on the breadth of their roles and responsibilities and their influence on company performance and the industry.

The list encompasses execs from a variety of streaming companies, including free advertisement-based-video-on-demand (AVOD) players like Tubi; ad-supported streaming-TV services like Pluto TV; device makers capitalizing on the AVOD trend like Roku and Samsung Electronics; tech companies centered on video, like TikTok and Twitch; and content owners that are strategically licensing to these platforms, like Banijay Rights.

The list does not include executives at ad-supported services that charge subscription fees like Hulu or ESPN Plus. But it does include freemium offerings like ITV Hub that offer free ad-supported tiers.

The executives are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Lauren Anderson and Ryan Pirozzi, co-heads of content and programming, IMDB TV

Lauren Anderson and Ryan Pirozzi oversee programming for IMDB TV, Amazon's bet on free, ad-supported video.

They're leading the push to make original content for the tech giant's division that was formed last year as Freedive and make popular shows like "Mad Men" available on the service for free.

After an internal shakeup in February, Anderson, an Amazon Studios exec, and Pirozzi, formerly on the Prime Video team, took over IMDB TV's content team, under the umbrella of Amazon Studios.

The pair is crafting a programming slate that's distinct from the originals on Amazon's subscription service Prime Video, known for shows like "The Boys" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

IMDB TV's first original, "Alex Rider," a teen-spy series based on Anthony Horowitz's young-adult novels, lands in November. And the platform has more originals planned for next year, including a new take on the old TNT crime drama, "Leverage."

Anderson was the head of strategic content for Amazon Studios before IMDB TV. Prior to Amazon, she developed originals for Snap, as chief content officer of Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts, a joint-venture between NBCUniversal and Snap. She was also programming executive at NBC Entertainment, and worked at the NBA.

Pirozzi was head of worldwide TV and film licensing for Prime Video before joining the IMDB TV team. He's been with Amazon for nine years. He was also an executive at Best Buy. He also served five years in the US Air Force.

Sara Clemens, COO, Twitch

Livestreaming is booming during the pandemic, and Amazon's Twitch is one platform that's benefiting.

Sara Clemens is trying to sustain that growth by attracting more musicians and athletes to Twitch while  expanding its core community of gamers. 

Clemens is building a team at Twitch to focus on music as artists flock to the platform amid the absence of touring. She's made key hires from Spotify and elsewhere, under music head Mike Olson. Twitch also signed its first exclusive streaming deal a musician, rapper, Logic, this year.

Clemens is also investing more in sports as athletes use social video to connect with fans who can't be in the stands. Twitch launched a sports category in July as live sports returned and relaunched its twitchsports channel that showcases certain broadcasts.

Twitch says viewing hours on its platform nearly doubled during the second quarter of 2020 from a year ago, and that hundreds of thousands of new broadcasters joined the platform this year.

Clemens joined the San Francisco-based tech company in 2018 after serving as Pandora's operating chief and holding top roles at Microsoft's Xbox division and LinkedIn. She is on the boards of Duolingo and Hootsuite.

Matt Creasey, EVP of sales, co-productions, and acquisitions, Banijay Rights

AVOD and linear-streaming channels are creating new categories of rights for content distributors.

Banijay Rights' Matt Creasey is capitalizing on the rise in ad-supported streaming to monetize the European distributor's extensive collection of rights, including shows like "Survivor," "MasterChef," and "Peaky Blinders." 

Creasey, who joined Banijay Rights through its 2020 acquisition of Endemol Shine, has struck deals to bring Endemol Shine channels to platforms like Samsung TV Plus and The Roku Channel in the US and European.

In August, he took on an expanded role as Banijay Rights' EVP of sales, co-productions, and acquisitions, outside of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), where he's helping the business ink more deals beyond its core markets.

Creasey is focusing on regions were the market for ad-supported video is blossoming, like in the US, where he's prioritized programming for platforms including Pluto TV and Tubi, the company said. He's also working closely with platforms in Australia, including the digital arms of Network 10 and Seven Network.

Creasey joined Endemol Shine in 2006 and was previously the head of sales at entertainment company Celador International.

Sean Doherty, CEO, Wurl

As the head of video-tech startup Wurl, Sean Doherty helps content producers and distributors turn their hours of programming into linear ad-supported channels.

The Palo Alto-based company he founded powers linear streaming channels for publishers including AMC Networks, Banijay, and Cinedigm on platforms like Plex, Xumo, and Samsung TV Plus. 

It's put Doherty in a pivotal position in the streaming ecosystem, amid in the boon in free, ad-supported streaming TV. 

Wurl said in April that it surpassed 400 streaming channels on its network, which also supports supports live events and on-demand channels. 

Doherty, a serial entrepreneur, founded companies including telecom services company Odyssey Telecorp and TradeNet, which built instant-messaging tools in the 1980s, earlier in his career. He was also the founding operating chief of the former broadband provider @Home Network.

Steven Forde, director of digital products, ITV

ITV's Steve Forde is helping build out the market for ad-supported streaming video in UK. 

As director of digital product, Forde oversees the UK broadcaster's streaming service, ITV Hub, which was the fourth most-used online-video service in the country last year, after BBC iPlayer, YouTube, and Netflix, research firm Ampere Analysis found.

Forde joined ITV in 2015, from Channel 4, to revamp ITV's online-video platform, then called ITV Player.

He helped launch in 2015 ITV Hub, a free, ad-supported platform where viewers can watch live or catch up on ITV shows like "Love Island" and "Britain's Got Talent." In 2017, the service introduced an ad-free subscription tier, ITV Hub Plus, and became one of the first UK services to try the freemium model.

More recently, Forde has sought to expand ITV Hub's user experience and content library. He's experimenting with exclusive content tied to popular ITV shows, like an original series called "Britain's Got Talent: Unseen" that features unaired auditions from the series. 

ITV Hub had 32 million registered users as of June, up 9% from a year earlier, the company reported. The number of hours consumed on the platform was up 14% year over year. 

Forde held roles at YouView, UKTV, and digital-ad agency Dare, in addition to Channel 4, before ITV.

Matthew Henick, VP of content strategy, investment, and partner product marketing, Facebook

Four years ago, Facebook declared it was going all-in on video, and putting "video first" across all of its apps.

It took some time, but the social-media company is starting to hit its stride as the pandemic has propelled usage of its ad-supported video platforms, including Live and Watch, as well as livestreaming on Instagram, which doesn't currently feature ads.

Facebook executive Matt Henick oversees the company's video-content strategy, as VP of content strategy, investment, and partner-product marketing for Facebook, Instagram, and its other apps. 

Henick told Variety in September that he strives to get everyone with a mobile phone watching Facebook's video hub, Watch, which features live streams, originals like "Red Table Talk," sports, news, and user-generated content. The platform also launched a section for music videos this year, as Facebook inked deals with major record labels.

The company announced in September that Watch was attracting 1.25 billion visitors each month, an audience that would make it a real rival to YouTube, which says it reaches more than 2 billion logged-in users per month.

Henick joined Facebook in 2018 from BuzzFeed Studios, where he lead the digital-media company's push to make TV shows and films. He previously cofounded the ringtone company, MobileSmarts.

Rob Holmes, VP of programming, Roku

Rob Holmes is leading one of the most important initiatives within Roku.

As VP of programming, he's responsible for The Roku Channel, Roku's content hub that it's positioned as the gateway to streaming, bypassing the need to open individual apps. 

The Roku Channel brings in free, ad-supported movies and TV shows, as well as access to some subscription services like HBO, Showtime, and Starz.

Holmes, hired in 2017, helped launch The Roku Channel. He introduced linear streaming channels into the service two years ago. And he oversaw The Roku Channel's expansions into Canada and the UK.

This year, Holmes rolled out an electronic guide to The Roku Channel's now more than 100 US channels, similar to the old cable-system grids. And his team launched of a section of kids and family section within the service, as families began watching more together at home amid the pandemic.

Roku said in June that The Roku Channel had reached US households with an estimated 43 million people as of the second quarter, more than doubled its reach from a year earlier.  

Holmes, who built and runs Roku's more than 100-person programming division, came to Roku from Comcast, where he was a top exec in the advanced-advertising group for several years. He also held roles at NBCUniversal, Vudu, and other online-video and entertainment companies. 

Srinivasan KA, cofounder, Amagi

Srinivasan KA cofounded Amagi 12 years ago to help broadcasters and studios monetize their content as technology reshaped the media and entertainment landscape. 

Today, the cloud-based tech company helps create live and linear streaming channels for distribution on free, ad-supported services including Samsung TV Plus, The Roku Channel, Xumo and Pluto TV, as well as paid platforms like Philo and Hulu.

The company, which powers channels for both broadcast and streaming TV, says it's helped launch more than 150 streaming channels, and that its clients include Discovery, Fox Networks, NBCUniversal, Tastemade, and Warner Media. 

KA heads up Amagi's work in the Americas, leading its relationships with key clients and overseeing the region's operations and revenue growth. He ran Amagi's geo-targeted TV advertising division in India before taking on the role.

Before Amagi, KA cofounded wireless-audio company Impulsesoft with the same team that started Amagi. Impulsesoft sold to semi-conductor company SiRF in 2006.

Sang Kim, SVP of product, Samsung Electronics

Sang Kim wants to make Samsung Electronics, one of the top smart-TV makers, a leader in free, ad-supported streaming.

Kim, who heads up product for Samsung's smart-TV business, joined the company in 2013 and led the team that built Samsung TV Plus, a free, ad-supported streaming service.

Similar to services like Pluto TV and Xumo, Samsung TV Plus features an array of linear streaming channels. But it comes built into Samsung smart TVs, so households have automatic access to the programming as soon as they connect and power up their TV sets.

Last month, Kim oversaw the rollout of Samsung TV Plus onto new models of Samsung smartphones, bringing the platform to mobile devices for the first time.

Kim told Protocol in September that Samsung TV Plus was one of the five most-used apps and the second-most popular free video app on Samsung smart TVs. The service has more than 500 channels and is available in 11 countries. 

Samsung has said Samsung TV Plus is a key driver of its developing advertising business.

Kim was an executive at Google for nearly nine years before Samsung.

Farhad Massoudi, CEO, Tubi

Farhad Massoudi's Tubi sold this year to Fox for a cool $440 million, giving the legacy-media brand a foothold in streaming, while cementing the industry's enthusiasm for ad-supported video.

Founder Massoudi stayed on as CEO and runs the service inside the broadcaster.

Massoudi is trying to forge more relationships with Hollywood studios and networks to expand its breadth of free, popular movies and TV shows. The company says it has more than 250 content partners, including studios like Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, and Lionsgate.

Fox has been supplying content to Tubi since the merger, too, adding episodes of shows like "Lego Masters" and "The Masked Singer" to its library.

The companies are starting to pitch advertisers together. Brands that buy TV ads in "The Masked Singer," for example, can add audiences that stream past seasons on Tubi to their reach, the company said.

Massoudi, a former Yahoo engineer, launched Tubi in 2014 out of the ad-tech startup adRise, after seeing the ad dollars shift away from linear TV toward digital video. 

He's said Tubi's content library, meshed with its personalized recommendation engine, which is somewhat rare in the ad-supported space, sets Tubi apart from its rivals.

He is also trying to solve advertiser pain-points like ad frequency by capping campaigns, regardless of the source of the ads. Hitting viewers with the same commercial repeatedly is a problem across ad-supported streaming.

Tubi makes most of its money from advertising, though the company hasn't disclosed its revenue.

The service said it marked a milestone in August by reaching more than 33 million monthly active users, up 65% from a year ago.

Mike O'Donnell, CRO of platform business, Vizio

US smart-TV maker Vizio saw the gold rush to ad-supported video and wasn't about to sit on the sidelines.

Mike O'Donnell, chief revenue officer of Vizio's platform business, has helped the company reshape its SmartCast streaming ecosystem, where users access TV apps, to focus on free ad-supported streaming channels.

Vizio has launched dozens of new streaming channels in the last year, from publishers including Food52, USA Today, and Spanish-language streamer Vix. Since the pandemic, O'Donnell has also pushed Vizio to add more kids and family and health and fitness content. 

The company says SmartCast now has more than 200 free channels, combined with the channels available through its Pluto TV-powered service, WatchFree.

Last year, O'Donnell launched Vizio's advertising unit, where agencies and advertisers can buy ads directly across the smart-TV maker's platform, streaming channels, and partner apps. He is also the revenue chief of Vizio's data unit Inscape. 

O'Donnell said his team ramped up its efforts to bring more ad-supported content SmartCast after late February, when the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the US.

"Is it a watershed moment? I think it's a massive accelerant," O'Donnell said, estimating it sped up the market for ad-supported video by about 18 months.

Before Vizio, O'Donnell was CRO at smart-TV ad company Conneckt, and an executive at the another connected-TV company, YuMe, for six years prior to that.

Vanessa Pappas, interim head of TikTok

All eyes in tech have been on TikTok in 2020, first when users flocked to the short-form video app while in quarantine and then when it became the target of the Trump administration. 

Vanessa Pappas, now interim head, has been the senior-most executive leading TikTok's US operations since joining the company in January 2019, three months after the app debuted in the US.

Under her leadership, the primarily ad-supported business has continued rolling out news tools for advertisers, and even expanded into TV with an app on Amazon Fire TVs, though it's not yet being monetized through ads or any other means.

TikTok now has more than 100 million monthly users in the US and was last valued between $30 billion and $50 billion.

With TikTok's future still hanging in the balance, Pappas is tasked with figuring out how to keep advertisers in the fold, hold onto TikTok's lucrative user base, and prevent lawmakers from dismantling the app.

Pappas spent nearly nine years at YouTube before leading TikTok and was an exec at video producer Next New Networks before that.

Bill Rouhana, chairman and CEO, Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment

Sony's Crackle was an early mover in ad-supported streaming video and consistently ranks in market research as one of the most-popular AVOD platforms. 

Last year, Bill Rouhana's Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (CSSE) bought a majority stake in the service, giving Crackle access to a broader array of content.

CSSE operates several advertising-supported video-on-demand networks, like Popcornflix and Truli, and owns distributor Screen Media.

Rouhana thinks original content will give Crackle an edge in the increasingly competitive free ad-supported streaming category. But originals are a tall — and expensive — order for a free service.

Rouhana, a former entertainment and finance lawyer, devised what he hopes will be a sustainable model for free ad-supported original programming. His goal is to pay for the productions before the content lands on the network.

CSSE produces and acquires original and exclusive programming for its networks, like Crackle's "Going from Broke" series, executive produced by Ashton Kutcher.

Some of the productions are funded by brand integrations. "Going from Broke," a reality series about young people trying to get out of debt, has featured sponsors like Acorns, State Farm, Handy, and Chegg, and is cohosted by ed-tech company Chegg's CEO Dan Rosensweig.

Crackle's sister company Screen Media also buys and resells the rights to the originals and exclusives. It slices and dices them for international, domestic, or DVD distribution. Then it licenses the AVOD rights exclusively to Crackle.

Crackle sells ads in the programming as well.

CSSE, which went public in 2017, isn't profitable on a net basis, though the company posts an annual profit on an adjusted basis that excludes certain charges, according to company filings. Last quarter, revenues rose 89% year-over-year to $13.5 million, thanks largely to its growing distribution and production business.

Jeff Shultz, EVP and chief business officer, Pluto TV

Pluto TV has become one of the biggest names in free, ad-supported streaming TV since it was acquired by ViacomCBS in 2019 for $340 million.

Jeff Shultz, executive vice president and chief business officer, is one of the streaming company's key dealmakers, alongside CEO and cofounder Tom Ryan.

Shultz oversees Pluto TV's partnerships, including its relationships with the roughly 200 content partners that the company says provide content for its more than 250 linear channels.

Since Pluto TV's acquisition, Schultz has also run point on working with ViacomCBS to funnel more of the legacy-media company's programming to Pluto TV, including launching linear channels for franchises like CSI.

Schultz is also tasked with leading key growth strategies for Pluto TV. He spearheaded the push to integrate Pluto TV into more connected TVs, like Vizio devices, in which Pluto TV powers the free streaming service, WatchFree. Shultz also struck a deal with Verizon this year to pre-install Pluto TV on Fios set-top boxes and other devices and bring the service to more smartphones via an app. 

ViacomCBS reported that PlutoTV's ad revenue grew last quarter, despite the coronavirus pandemic's strain on ad markets, but did not break out the segment's revenue.

Pluto TV's audience grew 61% year over year to 26.5 million US monthly active users. The platform has also expanded into Europe and Latin America, where it has another 6.5 million monthly active users.

Shultz spent about six years at CBS before joining Pluto TV in 2018, and held various digital-media roles before that. He also advised for three years before coming on board full time.

Matt Strauss, chairman of direct-to-consumer, NBCUniversal

Comcast cable veteran Matt Strauss is spearheading NBCUniversal's streaming strategy, and ad-supported video is at the center of it.

NBCU's flagship streaming service, Peacock, launched nationally in July with a freemium model that includes both free and paid tiers. Strauss saw it as a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace with subscription rivals like Netflix, Disney Plus, and HBO Max, he previously told Business Insider.

As of September, Peacock had signed up more than 15 million users, the company said. Its goal is 30 million to 35 million monthly active accounts by 2024.

Peacock also recently landed distribution on Roku, putting to bed NBCU's dispute with the popular connected-TV platform, and potentially opening the service up to a wider audience.

Strauss has also led the push for Peacock to program linear channels in addition to its on-demand library in the hopes of capturing customers who don't have traditional TV packages. The concept is similar to the free channels on platforms like Pluto TV and Xumo (also part of Comcast), but Strauss prefers to think of them like Spotify playlists that can be tailored to tastes and moods. He aims to have 60 channels on the service this year, including channels for NBC shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Office," and talent like Jimmy Fallon.

Strauss, who joined Comcast in 2004, is no stranger to developing video platforms. Before Peacock, he was EVP of Xfinity Services for Comcast Cable, where he helped hone the company's strategy for its internet-connected set-top box, X1, and the launch of its media-streaming box for broadband customers, Flex.

He developed Comcast's model for on-demand video in an earlier role, as well, and pushed to sign licensing deals that would expand the cable company's on-demand library.

Andre Swanston, CEO, Tru Optik

Andre Swanston has said for five years that ad-supported streaming would be bigger than TV, and he's out to prove that we're well on the way to that future. 

Swanston, who founded ad-tech startup Tru Optik six years ago, said the industry jumped forward six quarters in six weeks this year, as the pandemic boosted streaming viewership and advertisers looked to connected TVs to get the most from their ad dollars.

Tru Optik runs a data-management marketplace used by publishers and platforms like Pluto TV, Discovery, and Xumo to help advertisers target ads to their audiences. The firm also acts as a "household graph" that can tell how many times a member of a household saw an ad on a specific OTT device, smart speaker, or game console. 

In October, Tru Optik was acquired by credit bureau TransUnion, which saw potential in the fast-growing streaming TV and connected-audio spaces the startup plays in.

Swanston said he no longer has to convince agencies and publishers that free, ad-supported services like Pluto TV and Xumo matter, as he did just three years ago.

"That knowledge gap is mostly gone," Swanston said. "Everybody knows they're really important distribution points."

It helped that some of the biggest names in TV, like Comcast, Fox, and ViacomCBS, entered the industry by acquiring top players including Xumo, Tubi, and Pluto TV. That legacy-media backing is going to influence where the ad-supported goes from here.

"The next couple years in are going to really shape who the dominant players in the space," Swanston said. 

Stefan Van Engen, SVP of content programming and acquisitions, Xumo

Xumo's Stefan Van Engen is hustling to capitalize on the rush of viewers turning to free, ad-supporting streaming-TV services in 2020. 

As SVP of content programming and acquisition, he's responsible for the company's content strategy, including growing its collection of more than 180 channels like ABC News Live, PeopleTV, NBC News, Food52, USA Today News, and PGA Tour.

Van Engen shifted his attention in the past year to acquiring more family shows and movies as people spend more time at home watching streaming video.

In March, Van Engen started fast-tracking the launches of kids and family channels on Xumo, as well "easy-viewing" programming, like old Westerns, in response to what users were watching on the platform.

Xumo was acquired in February by Comcast, making it the second major free, ad-supported service to get snapped up by a legacy-media giant, after ViacomCBS's 2019 purchase of Pluto TV. 

The company, which also powers the streaming channels on LG smart TVs in the US and Canada, said it had 10 million monthly viewers around the time of the deal.

Before Xumo, Van Engen led programming at Bedrocket Media Ventures, a firm that built video networks and channels. He was a producer and development exec earlier in his career.

Tara Walpert Levy, VP, agency and brand solutions, Google and YouTube

Google's Tara Walpert Levy is fighting to maintain YouTube's lead in ad-supported streaming video and prove it's now a staple of the TV set.

YouTube, which boasts 2 billion monthly logged-in users, is still the biggest ad-supported streaming service, even as the category has grown to include other social-video platforms, on-demand services, and linear-streaming channels.

The company says more people are turning to YouTube on TV sets, as well. YouTube said in March that more than 100 million people in the US watch YouTube and its pay-TV service service, YouTube TV, on TV sets each month.

Walpert Levy, who oversees YouTube's relationships and upfront negotiations with ad agencies, is trying to make it easier for advertisers to target ads to YouTube's TV viewers.

This year she introduced a new streaming-TV offering, called YouTube Select, for upfront buyers who want to buy ads on TV screens, across YouTube and its pay-TV product YouTube TV. 

Walpert has been with Google for more than nine years. She was the former president of video ad-tech company Visible World, and she was an associate partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Walpert Levy sits on the boards of Braze, which runs a customer-relationship platform, and Outback Steakhouse-owner Bloomin' Brands. 

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