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Big Media Slow on FAST Opportunities

Big Media Slow at FAST
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Add FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) to the long list of viewing innovations Big Media has misunderstood.

As a viewing format, FAST, or linear digital streaming, has been around since Pluto TV’s launch in 2014. Viacom purchased Pluto TV in 2019 and integrated its own branded channels, like MTV and Nickelodeon, into the platform, unleashing the full potential of the FAST format.

Pluto’s success at ViacomCBS led Fox, Comcast, Amazon, Univision and Sinclair to all enter the FAST market in the last two years, either purchasing services like Tubi or Xumo or launching their own (Peacock, IMDb TV, PrendeTV and Stirr, respectively).

Ad revenues from FAST are also growing. While the major operators decline to specifically break out how much they make from FAST and AVOD, usually combining these figures within broadcast or cable TV divisions, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch said during both the Q4 2020 and Q1 2021 investor calls that he expects Tubi to become a billion-dollar annual business for Fox.

It’s important to note the majority of services that offer FAST also offer an AVOD experience. Tubi, which is primarily AVOD, has a FAST service that is unique in that it is limited exclusively to news.

Other media groups, opting not to buy or create their own services, license out branded channels across the FAST market. You can now find the likes of “Crime 360: Presented by A&E,” “Hallmark Movies & More” and “Rush by AMC” across FAST services, joined by offerings from smaller cable groups such as “Fuse Backstage,” “Bloomberg Quicktakes” and “Reelz.”

These are not the companies that could be considered slow on FAST. That distinction goes to Comcast, Discovery and WarnerMedia for differing reasons.

Comcast is slow on FAST for two very different reasons. Despite owning two services in Xumo and Peacock that have FAST platforms, the pair boasted three Telemundo-branded channels between them for all of 2020 and 2021 to date, gifting archrival Univision significant white space to launch the Spanish-speaking PrendeTV in March 2021 and allowing Pluto to launch a significant Spanish-language section.

Peacock, notably, was the only streaming service launched from traditional media in 2020-21 that had a FAST option, a fact that should be applauded. It is, however, extremely underutilized versus the template ViacomCBS built.

Not only are we still waiting for the vast bulk of channels announced during Peacock’s January 2020 unveiling, including the considerable money spinner that would be the “Law & Order”-branded “L+O Dun Dun,” but so much money is being left on the table with other owned properties.

“The Office” moved to Peacock but hardly moved the needle for subscriptions — or sign-ups or any other base metric NBCU reports — to Peacock Premium, where seasons 3 through 9 are available. Viewership of these seasons also fell once the show moved from Netflix to Peacock, suggesting fans weren’t quickly subscribing to a new service just to watch the antics of Michael Scott.

With that in mind, NBCU is leaving substantial sums on the table by not creating an “Office”-based FAST channel on Peacock. The concept has been proven to work — just browse through the cable guide during the evening to see hours dedicated to syndicated episodes of the show — with whatever revenues lost from Premium subs who only subscribed to watch “The Office” offset by the vastly greater numbers being sold ad inventory against on FAST.

A similar misstep can be argued for Discovery’s Discovery+ and the AVOD plans for WarnerMedia’s HBO Max. Lack of FAST integration within these services is handicapping full revenue maximization and, in the case of Discovery in particular, is inexcusable.

Discovery, and the legacy Scripps networks it bought in 2018, invented the formula for keeping viewers watching a channel for long blocks of time on networks such as Investigation Discovery, HGTV and Food Network. This has now been unleashed across FAST channels like “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Cold Case Files” or even “The Bob Ross Channel.”

It’s a head-scratcher that, while Discovery+ does have some premium linear streaming channels, they’re almost impossible to find. On top of that, why there’s no “Peacock Channels” FAST setup monetizing older content for free is a real puzzle. As well as monetizing old content, it would act as a gateway for Discovery+.

Bearing in mind the SVOD also seems to lack AI for user recommendations, perhaps technical innovations and an easier way to find linear channels will be coming at a later date.

Details have been scant for HBO Max’s premium AVOD tier that’s launching in June, but one thing that’s been totally absent in the few scraps released has been linear streaming. This is a mistake, given linear channels are a way to maximize viewer time spent on the service, hence served more ads. With the rich content library available across the legacy Warner Bros. and Turner divisions at WarnerMedia — think a “Friends,” “Two and a Half Men” or “Big Bang Theory” channel — creating a linear streaming platform within HBO Max AVOD should be a priority.

The critical thing for media execs to remember when devising a content distribution strategy is that times have changed. With very few exceptions, it is no longer the era of “build it and viewers will come.” We’re now in a land of consumers expecting content to follow them onto the platforms they use. Embracing FAST, as many traditional media companies have begun to do, should be a core part of any content strategy devised to maximize revenues.