FAST, a topic long championed by VIP+, is attracting greater industry attention in the lead-up to the 2022 NewFronts, where CTV in general — and FAST in particular — is expected to see a big increase in advertising money.
For those new to FAST — free linear streaming TV channels — there are over 20 services available in the U.S., with Amazon, Fox, NBCUniversal, Paramount and Samsung all owning FAST platforms. These companies all create FAST channels as well, which are licensed to other platforms along with other big media firms such as AMC Networks, A+E Networks, BBC, Crown Media, Sony and Univision.
That the FAST market is booming is undeniable. The total number of available channels grows every month, with 14 out of 16 FAST services with channel counts available in April 2021 and 2022 reporting a year-over-year increase.
Despite this growth, it is impossible to get any information from the services about their domestic audiences. Pluto and Xumo used to publish domestic monthly average users (MAUs) but shied away from that in the wake of rivals either publishing the total user base for their product (Roku) or not publishing at all (everyone else).
The lack of published measurement data — and the fact that what is put out is global and not U.S. — means that in order to assess performance in the U.S., we must turn to third-party data. Only Tubi (51 million), Pluto (64.4 million) and, as VIP+ can exclusively reveal, Plex (13 million) release a global MAU figure, with measurement for everyone else a black hole.
Given FAST platforms are available as downloadable apps for both connected TVs and devices, as well as smartphones and tablets, this means having to divide and conquer. Note, too, that these services offer both FAST and AVOD but that FAST is responsible for the vast majority of content watched on services like Pluto.
First TV: To assess which FAST apps have the widest usage, VIP+ asked TV measurement specialists TVision for data to suss out the services with the greatest household reach during Q1. While there are some exclusions to the data (OEM-native FAST services), it paints a picture that there is a tiered society within FAST where the majority of services do not see even a measurable monthly audience.
Assessing the total streaming landscape for average minutes watched per month among users points out that free streaming services lag behind most SVODs (Paramount+ and free/subscription hybrid Peacock aside) and YouTube.
This isn’t necessarily bad. An average, by its nature, means many users will see consumption levels greater than the mean value reported. There has been substantial growth in user time between Q3 2020 and Q1 2022 for Peacock (+1339%), Roku Channel (+305%), Tubi (+381%) and Pluto (+317%), demonstrating that free streaming is growing its audience.
Another way to measure the growth of FAST in the U.S. is mobile device penetration. App download measurement service Apptopia shared data with VIP+ for the number of first-time downloads of free streaming apps across the last year.
Note more mature services will naturally see first-time downloads decline over time. What stands out most is how dominant Tubi was for first-time downloads over the last 12 months, notching up 28.7 million in what is a positive endorsement of the initiatives Tubi rolled out — boosting out local news, creating channels based on Fox IP and the addition of originals.
But again, we see a clear distinction between FAST services. Seven saw fewer than 2 million downloads in the last year, with a number recording fewer than 500,000.
Another way to measure mobile metrics is the number of sessions for each service, which are defined as any time a user opens the app on a smartphone or tablet. This sees Tubi firmly leading the pack, followed by Pluto, with the rest of the measurable FAST market clustered much further behind. (OEM services are not measurable here.)
There are two distinctive conclusions to be drawn from this analysis. The first is there are clearly tiers between FAST services when assessing data available for TV and mobile devices:
Tier 1 (Market Leaders): Peacock, Pluto, The Roku Channel, Tubi
Tier 2 (TV Set Services): Samsung TV Plus, LG Channels+, Vizio Watchfree+
Tier 3 (On the Cusp): Amazon Freevee, News by Fire TV, Plex, Redbox, ViX, Xumo
Tier 4 (Niche Audiences): Distro TV, Haystack News, Local Now, NewsOn, Prime Video Channels, Sling Free, Stirr, Sports.TV, Very Local
The second conclusion is that standardized monthly user metrics are needed. There’s nothing stopping the FAST services from forming a council among themselves and setting some (useable) definitions to report on such as the number of weekly users and the number of viewers logging five or more and ten or more hours of viewing a month.
The fear is always that this will burst the balloon and make Wall Street think that FAST is a fad. Yet the majority of major cable networks pull in under 500K average primetime viewers a night, and so having numbers similar to this or exceeding this would make FAST more, not less, valuable to advertisers.