The peak TV era may be over, but free, ad-supported streaming television is continuing to boom.
With more than 1,500 FAST channels now operating in the U.S., though, is there a risk of that vast array of offerings overwhelming consumers and bogging down the programmers and distributors trying to manage them all?
The consensus among five executives speaking on a panel Tuesday at NATPE: The risk is indeed real, but as with all industry booms, the glut of channels is forcing all stakeholders to raise their games. The result could be improved financial results and a better experience for viewers.
“There were channels when we started that were really just slapped together,” said Laura Florence, SVP Global FAST Channels for Fremantle. The test for any channel should be, she added, “Will viewers stay through a 2-minute ad break for it?” As the multi-billion-dollar FAST segment continues to evolve, programmers, advertisers and distributors should look to tried-and-true models of how the experience has worked best on commercial TV. “Things that have a beginning, middle and end” help keep audiences tuned in, Florence said. “I don’t think everything can last with 1,500 channels,” she added, given the ever-rising bar for execution.
Sam Harowitz, VP of content acquisition and partnerships for Fox Corp.’s Tubi, said FAST has “been in this period of growth and now we’re at, or almost at, the point of shifting into optimization. … You’re going to see, I think, over the next 12 to 18 months, a culling of channels.” Platforms, among them smart-TV makers and connected-TV distributors are “really taking a hard look” at their FAST lineups. The 1,500 to 1,600 channel level of today’s marketplace will likely drop to 1,000, he predicted. “Because it’s no longer going to be cost-efficient to maintain and launch channels.”
Will Gurman, VP, Content Strategy & Business Operations, Pluto TV, said the initial draw of FAST was relieving viewers of the burden of finding something to watch in streaming. Instead of laboring to find a specific show on a specific service on demand, they could just lean back and be served a linear feed of FAST fare. But when the business “starts to build toward so many channels that it’s suddenly no longer that kind of lean-back experience, you’ve kind of taken away some of the success of that model,” Gurman said. Combining linear FAST engagement with on-demand viewing is the key, he added, with Pluto users who watch both FAST and on-demand titles “significantly more likely to consume content and come back the next month.”
Compared with the go-go early days of FAST, “getting distribution is now just the start” of the process, said Jamie Schouela, President, Global Channels and Media for Canada-based Blue Ant Media. Today, Blue Ant works closely with distributors on the launch and operation of channels, he said. That extra attention can pay dividends when refining even basic things like the name of a channel, “so that people know what they’re getting in a 400-channel universe” on a given platform.
Lindsay Stewart, VP, FAST & AVOD Revenue Strategy, AMC Networks, said it’s “not a one-size-fits-all strategy” with each distributor. Understanding the needs and tendencies of each one is crucial. “Not every channel is going to be live on every platform” given varying demographics or business goals, she noted.