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1 September 2022

Natural selection threatens independent FAST channels

On the surface, it can often seem like free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) is swimming against the current. Not only does it encourage mindless scrolling of EPGs, but it is by nature antithetical to the great unbundling of media that came with cord cutting and the rise of OTT.

Instead, bundling is the name of the game in FAST, as a ballooning number of channels unite to find host platforms, which in turn are pitching for OEMs to host them.


It seems that most in the game, or at least those present on a panel at this year’s Streaming Media Connect online event, are realizing that this town ain’t big enough for everyone.

With the FAST market reaching saturation point, every channel operator is feeling the pressure to earn its keep while simultaneously looking to control swelling content budgets.

Jonathan Barbato, Co-CEO of FAST channel studio Best Ever Channels, feels that FAST is entering a period of natural selection. “Roku has thousands of channels, but they aren’t all watched,” he said, predicting that soon enough, platforms will have to start taking stagnant channels now if they are to onboard new ones.

Asked whether this threatened the loss of small independent channels, like those run by Best Ever Channels, Barbato conceded that the risk is there. “Consolidation is natural, but we need to make sure we don’t lose the independents,” he implored.

The huge growth of FAST has attracted attention of the media giants, which has completely changed the composition of content in the past couple of years. Cameron Saless, CBO at Trusted Media Brands, observed how just two to three years ago, FAST services were clueless amalgamations of short-form content. He says this quickly changed with the likes of Fox and ViacomCBS launching their own platforms.

fuboTV is one of those latecomers, with the company’s Senior Director of Content Strategy and Acquisition, Marisa Elizondo, noting that the sports-focused virtual MVPD only pivoted to embrace FAST within the past year. Initially the company was hesitant about being seen as sloppy seconds, with OEM-run FAST platforms taking the lion’s share of viewership, however, it seems that fubo TV has decided that the venture is still worthwhile.

“We figured we would be a value add, rather than a full service,” Elizondo explained.

When it comes to competing with the big boys, Saless conceded that FAST is not yet bringing in enough ad dollars to fund the content libraries stocked with premium legacy titles and zeitgeist originals that many had mistakenly predicted for the format. “Ultimately, we need more money. We need to move beyond advertising into commerce,” he accepted. “Viewership is growing rapidly, but monetization is still catching up.”

“No one is going to be producing Game of Thrones,” he continued.

Looking to solve the growing costs of premium content, Dan Turow, VP of File-based Solutions at playout vendor Evertz, says that there are lots of simple tricks that can be effective. For example, Evertz’s replay and highlights automation tools allow content owners to seamlessly churn out assets for multiple content verticals from just one source video. The same two-birds-with-one-stone attitude can also be applied to local news, which can supplement much of its feed with larger, regional VoD assets.

Aside from bringing down production costs, Turow also recommended supplemental revenue streams, such as targeted advertising, ecommerce, and sports betting features. He cautioned that the latter is heavily reliant on frame-accurate tagging of metadata, however.

Often the simplest solutions are most effective, however, with Turow arguing that the best remedy against rising content costs is an intuitive UI. Seamless discovery tools allow platforms to keep users engaged with sharp recommendations of older, legacy assets. “You need to squeeze every drop from the longtail content to monetize it,” Turow said.

Saless says that TMB is looking for a mixed approach of some original content balanced with older, acquired content and ‘enhanced’ content made from merging different short-form assets. While TMB is increasing its share of originals, both Saless and Barbato say a mix is essential to keep the business economically viable as they try to compete with the media giants.

While we appreciated the candidness, his subsequent joke of “I hope we aren’t still watching the same NBC shows in two years” had an air of hopelessness about it.

Much of the discussion hinged around much needed UI and UX enhancements. Saless feels that EPGs need some innovation – “grouping by genre is helpful, but the major issue is getting people to EPGs in the first place. If it takes seven clicks to get to the EPG, it’s a problem for everyone.”

All the panel sung praises for interactive viewing features, whether sports stats and betting data for live sports, or watch party features for movies and TV series. Barbato says that if the TV is not up to the task, audiences can have enriching interactive experiences via a companion app on a second screen. For instance, for TMB’s comedy show The Riff, the audience can suggest topics for the comedians to cover via a mobile app.

Personalized FAST channels were another focus of the panel’s optimism, although there was much disagreement as to the timeline. While Saless felt it was possible in the next two years, Turow felt that between five and ten years was a far more realistic outlook.

“Rights are one issue,” he argued. “People don’t want to disaggregate their content and channels. It’s a legal issue,” he continued – and that is before we even get onto the backend complications. Turow says that personal one-to-one delivery of FAST assets will see CDN costs skyrocket for operators. While personalized channels allow for higher revenues via better targeted ads, Turow shared our skepticism that this would be enough to plug the gap of growing distribution costs.