The Rise of FAST Streaming
Suddenly, everyone is talking about FAST. FAST is free, ad-supported streaming television: services that to the consumer are free, with the revenue coming from people who buy advertising time around the programmes.
The obvious question is: what is new? Commercial television, from day one, has been free to consumers at the point of viewing, funded by advertisers. What is different about FAST?
First, we are not talking about broadcast channels. The key is the S of FAST: streaming. It is an online service, so more or less anyone can set up a FAST channel, if they have a pot of content and think people will pay to be associated with it.
Second, it is easy to associate FAST channels with video on demand, to provide a comprehensive offering, all funded by a common ad sales and provisioning platform.
FAST and linear television
The next reasonable question is around whether audiences want linear channels any more. The answer is, despite the incredible growth of on-demand offerings, yes they do.
Research in the UK by Thinkbox found that 83.4% of the audience relied on linear channels. According to Statista, the global television audience is 5.4 billion people, and while not everyone sees a long-term future for linear channels, at the bottom end of the estimates are almost half of Americans continuing to rely on it. In Finland the pro-linear group represents two-thirds of the population.
What makes FAST different from traditional broadcast channels? Generally, people regard them as much simpler in style and delivery. Where a premium channel will be highly branded and deliver a carefully curated sequence of content, FAST channels tend to be highly thematic.
Indeed, one of the first applications was for streamed binge watching of archive content. In the US, for instance, there is a channel devoted to a constant cycling through every series of The Rockford Files. If you are a producer or syndication rights owner, this is a very low impact way of exploiting content direct to consumers.
How consumers benefit
For the consumer, the great opportunity lies with discovery. You can easily find content that you enjoy, even stumbling across it accidentally. If the channel was protected by subscription, then consumers would not have that opportunity.
Given the economic crisis that is facing all of us, the idea of spending more money on subscriptions is not attractive. Even Netflix, the spiritual home of SVoD, now offers a lower subscription offer in exchange for viewing commercials, although the jury is still out on whether this will bring in new audiences or see large numbers of existing subscribers save money by downgrading.
Linear advertising is here to stay
Of course, audiences who have largely migrated to Netflix or Amazon Prime will find the sudden intrusion of commercial breaks into movies and shows unacceptable. But for most viewers, used to advertising in linear television, providing it is handled carefully this will not be a significant barrier.
For the advertiser, the FAST channel has a big advantage over simply handing over the bucks to a digital programmatic service. Like the true broadcast services, you are associating your brand with specific content, or at least a specific genre identity. A FAST provider can offer much of the broadcast premium: ad placement that is appropriate for the audience and the time of day, that eliminates product clashes and irritating repetition.
For the service provider, with a modern automated playout platform, on COTS hardware in your premises or – more likely – in the cloud, FAST is quick to establish and inexpensive to operate. Dynamic ad insertion at the point of delivery allows targeted ads and ensures campaigns are delivered to specifications in a timely manner.
Who can run a FAST streaming channel?
Who is likely to run a FAST channel? Media businesses with content to exploit are the obvious example. That could be a major production company or, because FAST is so easy to set up and run, it could be anyone with very specific IP, from businesses to sports groups and even colleges and clubs.
One unexpected trend is that consumer electronics manufacturers have launched their own FAST portals tied to their own hardware, like Samsung TV Plus and LG Channels. Each offers hundreds of channels, in an attempt to lock people into their products.
FAST relies on technologies for highly automated, minimal intervention playout, closely linked with asset management and VoD delivery. These technologies have now been perfected, through virtualisation and the cloud. These enable a practical response to current economic challenges, offering affordable and accessible access to a broad selection of content, potentially satisfying audience demand and, in turn, strengthening the market for television advertising. It is a potential win-win.