25 July 2022

FAST channels: The New Grail of Connected TV

To understand the dynamics behind the rise of FAST services in recent years, we must look at the motivations of the three key market participants: the viewer, the networks, and the content providers.

By Sandra Lehner

In 2015, I wrote an article for MIPBlog about what TV will look like in five years’ time. The article was inspired by a picture I had seen on Medium titled “TV Channel Guide from the Future” and was about traditional TV networks investing heavily in online publishers such as Thrillist, Vice and Buzzfeed, which the TV Channel Guide from the Future reflected.

My former Spirit Studios boss Peter Cowley left a comment saying, while it was a good article, “there probably won’t be a schedule anymore” and he was right. FAST channels (I didn’t know back then this type of TV programming would be called FAST Channels) don’t usually communicate a schedule and that’s why they are so appealing.

 

To understand the dynamics behind the rise of FAST services in recent years, we must look at the motivations of the three key market participants: the viewer, the networks, and the content providers. Since I believe the audience is the North Star, let’s start with the viewer. 

 

Why are FAST Channels so popular with viewers?

FAST Channels are the answer for our “endlessly scrolling through Netflix and not finding anything to watch”-Fatigue, the so-called “Paradox of Choice”. But also, for our “Subscription Fatigue” in general that comes with paying for several SVOD services during economic downtimes. They provide an affordable streaming alternative. FAST stands for Free Ad-supported Streaming TV. Yes, FAST channels are live, free TV, they are replicating the traditional linear, lean-back experience.

 

Asked about the appeal of FAST Channels, Jennifer Vaux, Head of Content Acquisition, The Roku Channel says: 

A lot of the time viewers just want to find something familiar to watch-- that is where FAST really shines. It brings that practice of easy, lean back viewing from traditional TV to streaming. The Roku Channel provides more than 300 linear channels to streamers through an easy to navigate Live TV Guide. Our offering is robust and includes everything from local and national news, lifestyle & entertainment, home improvement, Spanish language, IP-specific channels, family entertainment and so much more. There is a lot of choice out there, so it is important for us to curate a strong programming offering meet the needs of all types of streamers. As we continue to enhance our offering, we strive to provide strong, easily identifiable channels to keep our viewers engaged and fill gaps in programming needs.

Curation is another important factor. FAST channels are usually monothematic. They are devoted to specific hobbies, lifestyles, brands, series, movie genres etc. They allow viewers to immerse themselves in content collections based on their interest or mood. It’s not a commitment like watching an award-winning movie for three hours on a Sunday night, it’s ‘set it and forget it’ TV viewing. It’s like having the radio on while cleaning the house. It’s background entertainment rather than binging the latest “must-watch” show on Netflix. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that according to comScore peak Netflix viewership days are Saturday through Tuesday, with Wednesday through Friday seeing much lighter use. That’s when people prefer lighter entertainment such as FAST channel content. 

 

Hollywood and FAST Services

The rise of FAST Channels can also be seen in Hollywood.

In 2019, Viacom announced its intention to acquire Pluto for $340 million. Their plans for Pluto TV included using it as a distribution outlet for digital programming from brands like AwesomenessTV and as a marketing tool for its portfolio of media brands.

Then Comcast acquired Xumo in 2020. Tubi was bought by Fox that same year. Peacock includes a FAST service in its offerings as well. Amazon has IMDb TV, now called Amazon Freevee. Even Roku and Samsung have their own. And most of them host multiple channels from outside content providers. The goal is to serve audiences with focused, targeted or thematic programming niches.

A FAST channel network typically needs 100-300 hours of content to set up a channel, and about 10-20 percent of the total channel content should be refreshed every month. If a media owner does not have enough content, platforms such as Roku usually connect them with other content partners that have content in the same/similar genre, and encourage them to work together.

 

Opportunities for Content Producers

As a content producer, it’s quite easy to start your own channel and earn additional revenue. Multiple services like Amagi , Frequency or Wurl make it easy to upload your video and make the channel available.

And FAST services are always looking for content as they have so much demand. So, it’s much more possible to get a deal for carriage than it is on cable. Especially for independent producers FAST Channels can be a great door opener. But also, as a second life opportunity for content that would just sit on the shelf otherwise. Plus, the channel-flicking nature of FAST services help lesser-known local content find new audiences as the flicking helps with discoverability.

Jonathan Skogmo, Founder of Jukin Media says FAST Channels was their “fastest growing business” and it was a contributing factor of why they were acquired by Trusted Media Brands last year.

 

Are FAST Channels the Future of Entertainment?

SVOD, AVOD, and FAST will co-exist. People will continue watching premium content on SVOD/AVOD services mostly on the weekends, and then lighter/niche content during the week. FAST Channels are an affordable alternative for both, cord-cutters (Millennials) and cord-nevers (Gen Z). Gen Z prefers curated, streaming content. While FAST Channels are already very established in the US, the rest of the world hasn’t caught on yet. Especially in Europe the FAST Channel phenomenon hasn’t arrived yet. It’s not like European FAST services don’t exist, though. Pluto TV and Xumo – both have entered the European market. But linear broadcast services, which FAST Channels compete with, are either free or a lot cheaper in Europe than in the US. Therefore, it comes down to convincing European audiences to use them as a complement to their existing TV packages which isn’t easy to do. The other issue is, as mentioned above, FAST Channels require a pipeline of fresh content and that’s harder to do in small European territories where there isn’t as much content produced daily as in the US.

Nevertheless, I do believe FAST Channels will catch on in Europe and beyond, especially with Gen Z, and if you want to find out more about FAST Channels, they will be a focus topic at this year’s MIPCOM

About the author

SANDRA LEHNER

Sandra Lehner is a Creative Strategy Director, currently based in Los Angeles. She is a frequent contributor to MIPBlog, and speaks regularly at MIPTV & MIPCOM.