How the FAST Streaming Experience Can Improve

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Note: The following is based upon content from Variety Intelligence Platform’s special report devoted to exploring Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV (FAST), available exclusively to subscribers.

Free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) has improved markedly in recent years.

Content-wise, it is no longer the domain of digital shorts, recycled news clips and straight-to-DVD movies finding a new home. Most Big Media brands now have a presence on FAST, a topic VIP+ covers in detail in our updated report on the market.

The viewing experience has also come on in leaps and bounds. In VIP+’s first FAST report (2020), we noted how many channels had a loading time lag, with the initial experience similar to trying to watch something on RealPlayer in the early 2000s. This is now not the case, as channels load instantly upon selection.

Still, there are several areas where FAST can improve both the consumer and supplier experience.

The first of these is the ad experience. This can be further dissected into two areas, the first being ad placement. Channel operators (which are often distinct from the FAST platforms themselves) typically set the spot in their content where ad breaks will run. Some erroneously assume the platforms do this themselves, but this is only on owned-and-operated channels, not every one on the service.

The issue here is that some channel operators have very curious ideas of when an ad break should run, especially when showing old TV content that has ad breaks already baked in. Instead of utilizing those, content is often interrupted mid sentence, coming back to run for a minute or two before hitting a preset break placement.

The second ad issue concerns the breaks themselves. FAST is often viewed in a CTV environment, which is primed for innovations in how ads are shown, yet the majority of ads are still traditional video only.

If a channel or platform hasn’t sold all its inventory, the channel falls back on two options. One, which is thankfully declining, is just repeating the ads that have aired, which sometimes results in the viewer becoming hostile to the brand advertised. The other is to show a graphic, often animated, saying the show will resume soon.

This is such a waste of time, both for the channel and the viewer. A sensible solution would be to show promos for other content on the channel, other channels owned by the operator or coming to a deal to exchange promos with other FAST channels. We are sadly not at the point yet where a FAST channel packager or platform could dynamically shorten the ad break on a feed, which would be the other solution for improving viewer experiences. Hopefully innovations in this area will come soon.

Another realm that could be improved is the electronic program guide (EPG) many rely on to list their channels. While traditional cable has a stable EPG where the lineup doesn’t shift frequently, some FAST services have taken the opposite view and pinball channels around furiously in a situation that can’t be helpful for anyone channel surfing to find their favorites.

On the business side, standardization of viewership metrics would be a boon. If you operate a FAST channel on several platforms, the odds that you will be getting the same performance metrics to allow you to easily compare between feeds are slim to none. FAST platforms should work with their partners to create a unified reporting metric, which will in turn make it easier and more attractive to launch channels.

The final way to improve FAST is reporting audiences. VIP+ has long been dismayed at the ways FAST platforms opt to report the softest, yet largest, possible figure, as if it is simple to dupe outsiders into thinking 35 million domestic monthly average users must be watching rabidly each day.

Yet that situation hasn’t changed. Currently no one reports on any type of domestic viewership, which is appalling, especially in the face of pushing how FAST is growing. Only three services — Pluto, Plex and Tubi — report on a global figure.

Even if the engaged audience that watches daily or several times a week is a fraction of total figures — say a million or two — that is so much more than what the majority of cable networks pull in primetime. (Although releasing primetime FAST figures would be an amazing leap for parity between formats, don’t expect that ever.)

Openness about viewing would help draw in more advertisers, not force them out, as some fear. Setting a standardized metric across the various platforms would also be helpful, perhaps via a FAST council, with those refusing to take part looking suspicious to advertisers by their actions.

We are sadly a long way from some of these changes being implemented. But hopefully influential members of the FAST community will take note and make the overall FAST experience even better for consumers and businesses alike.

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