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Producing for FAST? Take it Slow

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When I read Jason Thibeault’s Future in Focus column in the January/February issue of Streaming Media, it struck a nerve with me. It probably would have elicited a similar reaction from many home TV viewers who have “cut the cord” to rid themselves of the “big cable bill” only to find they need a half-dozen different streaming services (6.8 as of March 2022 according to Kagan)—with each service costing $10, $20, or even considerably more a month (YouTube TV is $65 a month)—if they want to watch local TV in real time. All of this is on top of internet connectivity, which may be around $50 a month, plus taxes and fees. It all adds up. People can end up spending more for streaming TV than they did with cable.

Moreover, if you are streaming, you can’t just pop on the TV and flip through channels of content that’s already playing to find something to watch. If you know you want to watch, say, Captain Marvel, you have to choose the service, wait for the menu, pick a segment of content, wait for it to load, select the movie, wait for it to load, tell it to play, and let it cache. Then you can watch it. Or, if you’re unsure of what to watch, you have to root around and search for something. Or maybe ask for recommendations online. I see people do this a lot.

As Thibeault notes, there’s a vast audience that isn’t keen on working that hard to find something to watch. They want to turn on the TV and be entertained. They’d rather flip through a few channels and settle on something that meets their viewing needs at that moment, be it an action movie, a rom-com, kids entertainment, the nightly news, prayer, etc. So, there is another audience for your OTT content: those who don’t stream content but just watch “traditional” TV.

Thibeault uses the acronym FAST (free ad-supported television). Long before it became a streaming media buzzword, that’s what broadcast TV had been from the very beginning: free to viewers, ad-supported to get it produced, and on the air. FAST is not new. Regular TV broadcasts started in the U.S. in 1939. But today, trying to find content on a streaming service is not very fast. If anything, watching broadcast TV on TiVo is the fastest version of ad-supported television because all of the live TV is right there and it piles up all of the shows I want, no matter the provider. If I want to watch an actor, I do a search for their name, and all of their movies and shows come rolling in. For free. Well, almost free. TiVo has a cost too.

But for streaming media producers, ignore FAST at your peril. Making a half-hour show exactly 30 minutes can actually be a bad idea because in order for you to be able to remonetize that content on FAST, as some are starting to do, it has to fit in a broadcast grid with other timed content. This means you may have to trim the show. And possibly worse: Someone else licenses your content and chops it up how they want. Does it matter to you what 15 minutes someone else takes out of your hour show to make it fit their FAST schedule? This is what has been done for decades with original prime-time network content that then goes into syndication: Additional advertising time is carved out of the show to make it more profitable the second time around.

When I helped produce the cooking series Flavors of America and Healthy Flavors for both PBS and cable broadcast, we had to conform our show to both 28:30 of linear content for PBS and 23:50 with bumpers and breaks for commercial broadcast. Knowing the time the ads would require affected how we planned, produced, and edited the show.

Likewise, FAST programming needs space for the commercials. Unless you intentionally craft that space into your show, it just slices into your content randomly, ruining the mood of narrative content and frustrating viewers just as the show was getting to the “good part.” Watching YouTube content on a Roku device is like this now. The random “pop” to commercials in the middle of a scene is very annoying.

The opposite of this is watching syndicated broadcast programming that was edited with commercial breaks in mind, but now doesn’t have them. The content is written into little packages of narrative content that wrap up and pause for the commercial break. It’s weird to watch this content on ad-free streaming—for instance, watching the first two seasons of The Orville on Disney+, which were made for broadcast on Fox. With shows like this presented outside their original broadcast context, viewers who have only ever watched on-demand streaming and don’t understand the concept of commercial breaks can be left wondering why the show keeps pausing and fading to black every 12 minutes or so, with everyone in the scene just standing there and looking around while it fades out.

Knowing where and how your content will be viewed should affect how you produce it. Whether you leave room for commercial breaks or whether you push through as if they aren’t there are content considerations that are worth addressing at the outset. For narrative content, this is not just an editing decision: It’s something worth keeping in mind even in the writing stage. But for live streaming, knowing that every 10–15 minutes the content might need a “break” in some future viewable version should inform how you produce it now. Maybe change up the stream, and go to a slide that informs viewers about what they’re watching. That way, you’ll have provided a natural place to put the commercials in later.

In the end, in order for your streaming content to be delivered via FAST, you may need to take it slow.

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