What are the benefits and detractions to free, ad-supported television? Tom explains how it fits in the streaming market as a whole.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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Somebody told me I could watch streaming TV for free but my Netflix bill just went up.
They said something about FAST platforms?
Does that mean I need better internet?
Don’t be, let’s help you know a little more about Free Ad-Supported Streaming Television. Or FAST.
FAST stands for Free Ad-Supported Streaming Television.
It’s like the broadcast TV of the Internet. Back in the olden times, you had two choices for TV. You put up an antenna and got it free over the air or you paid for cable. And within cable there were ad-free channels like HBO you could pay even more for.
Streaming TV has been dominated by the equivalent of HBOs, like Netflix, Disney Plus and such. You pay a monthly fee to get the shows with no ads. Though sometimes you can pay less with ads. Something called Ad-supported video on demand or AVOD. You almost never get the stuff for free. But Free ad supported services are getting more and more popular. And there are lots of options supported by major content companies.
Some of them are more like paid streaming services, just with ads playing before, or sometimes during, your movies and TV shows. IMDBTV from Amazon is a good example of this.
Tubi from Fox is also like this although it does offer some live news and sports streams from Fox stations.
Most FAST platforms though, present you with a grid- similar to the old cable guide, where you can choose channels that continually stream shows. These are built around a topic or sometimes even a show. These services do offer on demand too, but the focus is on the grid.
Examples of this kind of FAST service are
PlutoTV from Paramount.
Comcast has Xumo
Sinclair has STIRR
Roku has its Roku Channel.
Redbox has Redbox Instant.
Samsung has Samsung TV Plus. There are also FAST services from LG, Plex and Vizio among others.
And NBC’s Peacock sort of reverses it. Peacock’s free ad-supported tier offers a selection of shows from its paid service but there’s also an ad-supported grid offering of those more linear channels.
One appeal of FAST services is you don’t need to set them up. If you have a way to watch Netflix now, you’re ready for FAST platforms. Most all the services have apps on the major streaming platforms as well as websites and apps for phones and tablets.
For example you would assume the Roku Channel would be available on Roku right? But it’s also available on FireTV, Chromecast, Android TV, Android, iOS and more.
OK but do people watch them? Yes. And in ever increasing numbers. PlutoTV reached 16 million monthly active users in its first 6 years. Two more years after it almost doubled that to around 30 million. 11% of US viewers had watched a FAST channel in Q2 2021. That rose to 14% in Q3.
Cable is expensive. Cable TV is estimated to cost US viewers an average of $2,609 a year. I mean, yes, there are a few good “special offers” here and there but they often include hidden fees or the amount rises significantly after a trial period. The fact is the amount actually being paid by people is high. Streaming services like Netflix cost less individually, sure, but the more you add the more they add up. And their prices are rising as well. FAST services cost nothing above what you already pay for internet.
You can also easily switch between them. If you tire of Pluto you can switch over to Xumo at no cost or hassle. You cannot do that with cable. In fact you can’t do that with broadcast either. What you get over the air is what you get.
Most of these services each have hundreds of channels.
But Can you watch anything good on them? Is it all reruns of Love, American Style? No. Not that there’s anything wrong with Love, American Style, it was the birthplace of Happy Days, after all, but I get why you might ask. And yes, there’s a wide variety of stuff. Much of it you might consider good, depending on what you consider good.
Pluto has channels like Cult films, Comedy, Paramount Movie Channel. There’s a whole channel devoted to Iron Chef. Major sports like NBA, NFL and MLB have channels showing highlights and classic games. There’s also news channels including local versions for many cities. Xumo offers news from ABC, NBC and CBS along with channels from folks like Funny or Die, and Rotten Tomatoes.
A few of these channels, like Cheddar news, or Hi-Yah will be the same as if you got them on a cable or cable-like service. But most of them are a variation, constructed specifically for the FAST environment.
That’s because it’s relatively easy for companies to start a channel.
Multiple services like Amagi, Harmonic, Frequency or Wurl make it easy to upload video, schedule those videos and make the channel available. Wurl, for example, offers to create and manage the channel while also handling distribution and monetization. These cloud companies have been trying to convince traditional networks to use them as a cloud service provider for years. But the rise of FAST has made a more profitable business for them than they would have planned.
The content creator just has to create the content and negotiate the deals to get on the platforms.
How hard is it to get a deal?
Platforms are no longer starving for content, but it’s still easier to get a deal on these kind of platforms than it is to get on a traditional cable provider. Cable still wants to negotiate a fee based on subscribers and all kinds of other complicated measures. Generally FAST platforms don’t pay to carry channels, but instead do a revenue share. Roku, for example can sell the ad inventory for a channel and then share a percentage with the channel’s creator.
Here’s an example.
Production company Fremantle owned the rights to loads of old game shows so it started a cable channel called Buzzr. (Yeah The Game Show Network used to do this then “expanded.) To help market Buzzr it launched a free version on Pluto in 2018. By October 2021 the channel’s audience had risen by 50%. And it wasn’t because cable subscribers. Those were falling not growing. It was the FAST version of the network. The ease of making the channels led them to launch dedicated spinoff channels for Bob Barker-hosted episodes of The Price is Right and another channel showing nothing but Baywatch.
And there’s money there. Pluto had its first $3 million sales day in 2020. Analysts at nScreenMedia estimate revenues from ad-supported streaming will reach $4.1 billion by 2023. The money Buzzr made helped them acquire game shows like The Newlywed Game and Whew! that they didn’t already have the rights too. Making their channel more appealing, increasing viewers and making them more money with which to go get more content.
That money is one of the reasons you’re seeing paid streamers like Disney+ and HBO Max start to offer ad-supported versions of their services. Though still for a fee, not free.
So if you’re bemoaning the high cost of streaming TV, and you’re OK missing out on the buzziest shows on Twitter– or if you just want an option to turn on the TV and “See what’s ON” instead of having to pick through a list of algorithmically recommended shows– FAST platforms are a great option And it won’t cost you anything but your attention.
In other words, I hope you Know A Little More, about FAST platforms.