As OTT service providers work to secure new revenue streams and minimise viewer churn, it’s no wonder that the FAST model is growing worldwide, writes David Davies.
Until relatively recently, it would have been fair to describe Free Ad-supported Streaming TV (FAST) as a primarily US-oriented phenomenon. It was here – with a huge potential audience to reach – that a number of established and emerging broadcasters were able to test the waters of subscription-free streaming. But now it’s a trend that is beginning to achieve traction globally, whilst the US market is becoming increasingly mature.
Swagat Mishra is Senior Product Manager at Muvi, whose FAST-relevant solutions include the Muvi One End-to-End No Code OTT platform. “From being a fad to becoming a trend, FAST has come a long way in the last few years,” he said. “With the rapid growth of OTT services, the industry was expecting some sort of viewer fatigue to set in and consolidation to happen, and we have seen FAST emerge out of this trend.”
The advent of new technology solutions that allow services to be launched quickly and relatively inexpensively means that the sector’s continued expansion is not in doubt. Mishra added: “OTT services see FAST as a way to continue to retain their viewers and avoid the churn rate that is haunting the OTT market globally.”
‘FAST drives monetisation’
There is general agreement that the growth of FAST can be attributed to several primary factors: the increasing savviness of the viewing public, who are aware that they can pause and shuffle their use of subscription services, so they are watching content on no more than 1 or 2 platforms at any time; the resulting viewer churn making subscription income very unpredictable, leading to a natural desire to seek other revenue streams; and the advent of new technologies, primarily cloud-based, that allow channels to be ‘spun up’ (or down) very swiftly.
Focusing on the business factors first, Steve Reynolds – President of Imagine Communications – placed FAST in the broader history of TV: “For decades, our industry has relied on two principal means to make money – you can sell the content or you can sell the audience watching that content. Early successes in the streaming business relied on only half of that formula (subscriptions), and so it was somewhat inevitable that they would eventually need to embrace ad-supported content to embrace the full potential of their business.”
Venugopal Iyengar is COO, Digital at next-generation media solutions provider Planetcast International. “FAST empowers providers to re-energise the traditional, ‘lean-back’ viewing experience that many crave,” he said. “At the same, an ad-based model drives monetisation and gives consumers access to free content – it’s a win-win.”
There is also an awareness that FAST affords the opportunity to provide types of material that may have been historically under-represented. “While many global consumers can already access a decent offering of ad-supported linear broadcast channels, FAST undoubtedly unlocks a more exciting and engaging range of content – from niche sports, entertainment and film channels to regionalised news and cultural programming,” said Iyengar.
Rick Young, SVP, Head of Global Products at video solutions provider LTN, said that “with macro-economic challenges continuing in 2023, consumers are looking to save on video subscriptions, favouring more affordable and rapidly growing ad-supported video services. Advances in personalisation and targeting mean audiences now find TV ad experiences more tolerable and engaging.”
‘Flexibility and agility’
Until recently, the launch of a new (linear) channel has tended to be the work of years, requiring extensive research as well as investment in people and infrastructure. The rise of OTT has already created a fresh model, and one that will only grow more efficient as cloud platforms develop – a trend that is universally cited as a key component of FAST expansion.
Drawing on the development of Imagine’s own cloud-native original platform, Aviator, Reynolds observes that from the tech side, “I think the greatest enabler was cloud-based playout platforms. The technology provided by these platforms embraces another macro-trend that was clear to Imagine: as consumers moved to the cloud to find and watch broadcast-quality content, there would need to be platforms built to originate that content in the cloud, for the cloud, and to the cloud. This is the reason that we chose to build our newest unified origination system natively in cloud, rather than taking the ‘lift and shift’ path that others may have chosen.”
Rob Gambino is Senior Director of Solution Strategy, Advertising and Content Personalisation at Harmonic. “The time to launch has certainly sped up – by necessity and the maturity of the technology involved,” he said, adding that Harmonic has made a significant investment in cloud-native capabilities. “In terms of necessity, [content platforms] are undertaking regular reviews of viewership, and if a service is not performing it will be given one more chance before being cut from the platform. If it takes a long time to spin up or spin down a channel, it does not conform with the model these platforms are using” – hence the overwhelming tendency for FAST services to be built on a “cloud-based architecture”.
“From a technical perspective, cloud playout innovation and smart collaboration with future-ready ad tech players makes it easy to spin up FAST channels,” said Iyengar. “For us, FAST is a seamless extension of our proven cloud playout services. Our partnership with ad tech pioneer Wurl enables us to achieve advanced monetisation workflows for FAST across international markets, and drive ROI for our customers.”
Young agreed that from a tech standpoint, “cloud-enabled playout innovation is providing media companies with greater flexibility and agility, empowering organisations to spin up FAST services without heavy CapEx investment.” He also cited the importance of “IP-based video transport, [which] is enabling media owners to deliver more content to more diverse global audiences than before – cost-efficiently and at unprecedented scale.”
‘Availability of content comes first’
Next year is expected to bring extremely brisk business for FAST worldwide, with the Asia Pacific region among those earmarked for the most rapid growth. Amagi’s latest Global FAST Report found that there had been a growth of 320% in total hours of viewing across FAST channels in APAC, as well as an 891% growth in ad impressions (comparison is YoY between Q2 2021 and Q2 2022).
Iyengar revealed that “we’re focused on helping our top-tier broadcast customers across Asia unlock the potential of FAST through our advanced monetisation capabilities and deep understanding of diverse markets. Some of the biggest media brands in Asia are rolling out FAST channels with us today, [while] we also partner with more nimble, niche players who cater to more regional audiences and cultural communities with linguistically diverse content offerings.”
In terms of the evolution of FAST platforms, an increasingly competitive market is bound to herald a more intense focus on “availability of content” and the role of automation in helping customers identify the programming that is most appealing to them, said Mishra: “AI recommendation engines will soon start creating customised schedules tailored to viewers, which helps increase the average viewing type, thus increasing the revenues. Other key drivers in FAST adaptation will be ad-tech innovations and user engagement that helps generate a better eCPM [effective cost per mille] for the platform, helping them increase their ROI.”
“One of the big challenges of launching new channels has always been scheduling,” reflected Gambino. “But we are starting to see AI and ML technology get to the point where they can generate compelling linear schedules without operators guiding it. So I think over the next year or two we will see a lot more of that [in FAST].”
However 2023 shapes up, it’s clear that the FAST story has many chapters yet to be written. Craig Buckland is Technical Director at Broadcast Traffic Systems (BTS), which provides a variety of channel management and monetisation solutions: “The FAST market has enjoyed rapid growth recently, but we are only at the beginning of the journey. More providers are seeing the value of these channels and are tapping into the market as a result. Providers are already equipped with a large back-catalogues of content, so the next step is to turn them into revenue-generating formats.
“Flexibility across workflows and innovation within the industry will only make it easier and quicker for new services to launch. The industry certainly is changing and revenue from FAST TV is set to rocket in the next couple of years. [Therefore content owners] need to consider the option of adding FAST channels to their distribution strategies”, he concluded.