Yet comments he made in Q3 regarding research WBD had conducted suggest a flaw in his approach. By name-dropping two old Westerns that each began in 1959 — ”Rawhide” and “Bonanza” — as the type of content that works best on FAST, it suggests that WBD might be viewing the format primarily as a way to distribute classic content such as the oldest episodes of “Sesame Street,” which vanished from HBO Max earlier this year.
This would be a big mistake.
For one thing, Zaslav should consult VIP+’s latest FAST special report, which outlines how important content is, as well as the strategies needed for differentiation in a crowded market. Simply blowing the dust off of archived content and making that a driver of a strategy won’t cut it in 2023, although that content does have a role to play, likely as part of curated channels based on specific themes.
WBD is blessed with some of the deepest content vaults in the business, as well as a diverse number of brands — ranging from TCM, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network to HGTV and Travel Channel — that are instantly recognizable. It’s not inconceivable that a year from now the company is operating 50 or more FAST channels that are part of a channel hub within the merged HBO Max/Discovery+ service likely to be known as "Max."
This means WBD has the capacity to lean deep into its library, creating channels based upon its cable network brands (much as A&E Networks, AMC Networks, NBCUniversal and Paramount have done, as well as many of the smaller cable brands), which will instantly attract viewer attention.
WBD can also go the route Sony Pictures and, more recently, Lionsgate have, creating a series of channels based on movies with new branding. In Sony’s case, there are several “Cinevault” channels — ”Cinevault Westerns,” “Cinevault ’70s,” “Cinevault ’80s” and “Cinevault Classics” — with Lionsgate rebranding its “MovieSphere Free Movies” channel to “MovieSphere by Lionsgate.”
Single-series channels are another area where WBD can really excel. These would fall under two categories, the first being vault content for popular shows no longer airing. Think channels dedicated to episodes of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Cake Boss” and even classic HBO fare like “The Wire.”
The second type of single-series channel would be channels, pop-up (i.e., temporary and tied to a premiere) or permanent, based on older seasons of big new shows about to come out on cable or streaming. Equally, movie franchises with a big new release about to drop could build excitement with a pop-up channel based on related films.
As VIP+ found earlier this year when assessing whether Netflix should launch FAST channels, the majority of viewing for new series of big streaming shows takes place within the first 30 days of launch.
In other words, few people probably aren’t subscribing to HBO Max right now to watch old seasons of “Succession” or “Gossip Girl.” But running channels based on older episodes would attract viewers looking for something they recognize to watch.
Both types of single-series channels would be upsells. Channels based on older seasons are an obvious marketing ploy to energize viewers and say, “If you’d like to watch the new season, subscribe today.”
Channels based on older content are also upsell opportunities. Peacock provides a great case study here, having belatedly launched FAST channels for “The Office,” “Law & Order” and the “Chicago” universe. These are great ways to attract audiences and will be strongly monetizable via ads. But given their linear nature, the channels are not best suited for those who want to watch the whole series in order (unless one never sleeps). For that, one must subscribe.
Zaslav's comments about the type of content that works best on FAST also ignores that there are many national FAST news networks, including “NBC News Now,” “ABC News Live,” “CBS News,” “LiveNow From Fox” and “CNN Replay.” Many of these have grown an audience, but “CNN Replay” is the only national news brand to still be based upon recycled news clips. If HLN hadn’t just been decimated by job cuts, that would have made a perfect FAST news brand for Warner Bros. Discovery.
A discussion about streaming channels should also not ignore PAST, the premium equivalent of FAST available in some SVOD services, including Discovery+. While the Discovery+ PAST channels currently don’t include ads in the ad-supported tier — quite the riddle — they do offer strategic value where themed channels or newer seasons of shows could have paywalled linear streaming channels and older content is free.
In terms of the distribution of FAST channels, WBD should keep some exclusive to a FAST hub within Max. Exclusive channels are set to be one of the new ways services vie to differentiate themselves, and WBD should certainly make the most use of its assets.
But WBD should also follow the lead of the likes of A&E Networks, which, lacking their own FAST service, distribute its 18 channels across Freevee, LG Channels+, Plex, Pluto TV, Samsung TV Plus, Roku Channel and Vizio WatchFree+. This enables the content the opportunity to be watched wherever viewers are, which in an increasingly fragmented landscape, is the best way to maximize total revenue.
As noted in VIP+'s special report, FAST was once an arena where old content could be stuck and it would work. But the space has evolved rapidly and requires a much more nuanced approach. WBD has the capability to be a true FAST giant. If it follows VIP+’s blueprint, it should be able to achieve that.