The Latest U.S. Trends for Free Streaming

AVOD Trends
Yinchen Niu/VIP

The U.S. free linear streaming industry continues to evolve. Even the terms used to describe it show some evolution. Free streaming was once simply AVOD, but the emergence of linear streaming channels within some free services saw FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) coined, and while that technically refers only to linear streaming, it is now used interchangeably with AVOD to describe the free streaming industry.

The AVOD term itself has been confused by analysts and industry figures alike. It’s not uncommon to see Hulu’s ad-supported SVOD tier be declared an AVOD but not see this applied to other SVODs with ads, such as the base tiers for Paramount+ and Discovery+.

With more ad-supported tiers on the way in 2021, notably from HBO Max, now would be the time to draw a line in the sand between free and paid services with ads. VIP has proposed labeling the ad-supported tiers for services like Hulu, Peacock Premium and Paramount+ as PAST (premium ad-supported streaming TV), given there is very different content available on these services versus free.

The linear streaming market itself saw another new entrant, as Univision’s PrendeTV, streaming exclusively in Spanish, has launched with 40 channels. ViacomCBS’ Pluto remains the service with the greatest number of channels, followed by NBCU’s Xumo, Roku Channel and Samsung TV Plus.

There is a conspicuous absence of a chart amalgamating the various usage stats published by free streaming services. This is due to the state of self-reported measurement falling into anarchy. Peacock refuses to release any figure other than a meaningless total number of people who have ever signed up for an account, free or paid, since service launch.

Tubi publicly refuted MAUs as a measurement stat, touting instead Total View Time, but then forgot to mention Tubi’s actual TVT. Roku claims the total number of people using a Roku device is the same as people watching AVOD or FAST content on the Roku Channel — it isn’t — and IMDb TV, Plex, Redbox, Samsung TV Plus, Stirr and Xumo didn’t share any figures at all.

Only Pluto released a stat for Q4 domestic MAUs. Pluto’s monthly average users grew by 6%, to 30.1 million in Q4, but per comments from ViacomCBS CFO Naveen Chopra in the Q4 earnings call, ViacomCBS will only be releasing global MAUs from this point on.

Privately, several major FAST services have expressed frustration with the lack of standard measurement and how the likes of Peacock and Roku game the system with inflated and meaningless stats. It is a pity to see their resolve break and, instead of trying to set a standard, join in the game of inflate the user base.

With 11 major FAST services, a key to attracting viewers is a distinctive offering. This is achieved through having exclusive channels on a service. Pluto is the clear leader here, leaning deep into the ViacomCBS library to offer 191 unique channels, or 68% of what’s available. Redbox has the smallest number of exclusives with six, as it licenses both third-party channels and channels from services like Xumo.

NBCU’s streaming misstep with Telemundo allowed space in the market for rival Univision to launch PrendeTV, which already offers the most Spanish-language channels in the U.S. NBCU has had more than a year’s lead to tap into the wealth of Hispanic content from Telemundo but only added three Telemundo-branded channels to Xumo in late January and inexplicably has none on Peacock. This should change in the coming months, as should the channels offered by Pluto and Roku, as they look to keep attracting Spanish speakers to their services.

News is emerging as a new battleground for FAST. IMDb TV recently added 30 new news channels, with the majority live feeds from local affiliates across the country. Stirr offers access to Sinclair affiliates nationwide but has added a new feature that sets the affiliate close to the user as their station (previously viewers could select which city’s news to view). Pluto offers local feeds from 10 city-based CBSN stations.

Tubi has announced plans to add close to 80 more local affiliates to its service, joining Stirr, IMDb TV and Pluto in adding for free what ViacomCBS is touting as a great paid feature for Paramount+. In addition to local news, the national news divisions from ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS have launched a host of channels, including NBC LX News, NBC News Now, The Choice, CBSN, NewsNow from Fox and ABC News Live.

There are also channels available from minor news services like Cheddar, TYT, Bloomberg and Yahoo, with opinion content from the likes of OAN and NewsMax. Seeing the major cable news brands make more of an effort in the next few months will come as no surprise, as it would be foolish to cede ground in an emerging space.

Major sports leagues are beginning to turn to FAST. The MLB is the latest to launch a channel on Pluto, on March 2, and joins the NFL, PGA, MLS and English Premier League as major sports with FAST offerings, even if these offerings are typically clunky and could use refinement to attract a greater audience.

More major sports will launch FAST channels in the coming months. Pluto should see a UEFA Champions League channel in order to drive more subscriptions to Paramount+. Likewise, Peacock Free should add several WWE channels once WWE Network moves to Peacock on March 18 to both maximize monetization of the content and increase subscriptions. Other leagues like the NHL and NBA belatedly launching FAST channels will also occur sooner than later.