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The Evolution of Free Ad-Supported TV (FAST)

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Free Ad Supported TV (FAST) services—which include Pluto TV, Samsung TV Plus, The Roku Channel and many more—are the fastest growing Connected TV (CTV) video platforms. 

FASTs are characterized by being (primarily) free to watch and advertising-supported, and providing both linear channels and on-demand programming in a single experience. For TV manufacturers they represent a new class of "in the glass" or "app-less" CTV experiences, where the services are directly integrated into the core of the SmartTV user interface. 

Scale and Adoption

The FAST audience — while still smaller than the global SVOD players — is growing incredibly quickly. Multiple FAST platforms are now bigger in audience than all cable and satellite TV platforms in the U.S. For many viewers, FASTs are a replacement to traditional (linear) TV, and as a consequence the platforms are seeing rapid adoption and very long session times, already approaching those of TV.

FAST services are free to watch, they don't require any dedicated hardware or complex setup, and they're rapidly becoming as comprehensive as traditional pay TV services in terms of content selection. For millions of people, they've already become the first viable alternative to the linear component of pay TV, with hundreds of free-to-watch always-on channels, eliminating one of the few remaining barriers to cutting the cord. Viewers can also easily use more than one FAST service -- something that couldn't happen with cable TV -- mixing and matching content to give themselves access to many hundreds of channels. 

The decline of traditional pay TV has often been attributed to what was considered the anachronistic and flawed experience of watching traditional linear or scheduled TV. But it turned out that viewers do actually like the "always on" experience of traditional linear TV, which the FAST platforms replicated. They like being able to tune into something that's already on, something that feels like it's been curated for them, and that they could navigate through with no more than a two-button up-down channel changer. They just didn't want to pay two thousand dollars a year for it. 

Good, Fast & Free

It's hard to overstate how poorly pay TV consumers in many markets, especially the U.S., have been treated over the years. A recent Consumer Report showed that U.S. viewers pay an average of $2,609 per year for cable TV. Of that, about $450 is in rental fees for set top boxes alone. Meanwhile, for the past 30 years, the cost of cable TV has increased annually at almost double the rate of inflation. And for their money, viewers still have to sit through at least 18 minutes of advertising per hour (30% ad load). 

FAST platforms offer the viewer a better experience in almost every way but one: content selection – a limitation that is getting sorted out now as the platforms mature and fill out their offerings with more premium programming.

FAST platforms are all newly built, cloud native, and are unbound from most legacy constraints. There are no channel capacity limits, no format limitations, they run on any device, and support on-demand, virtual-linear and live viewing experiences.

Innovation at Internet Speed

The next couple of years will be a time of incredible innovation for FAST platforms, which will soon functionally surpass traditional pay TV in every way. Untethered from the limitations of legacy set top boxes and low-performance devices, FAST platform developers will be able to innovate at "internet speed," building new rich experiences on mature open operating systems, powered by unlimited cloud computing resources, real time graphics capabilities, machine learning engines operating on rich content metadata and behavioral datasets, running on high performance devices.

Advertising will be another area of innovation. Most FAST services today use the same 2-3 minute advertising pods that have been the mainstay monetization mechanism for traditional TV for decades. In the future, FAST services will be able to support any advertising and promotional model imaginable. Dynamic calls to action with QR codes will power ecommerce experiences. Real time graphics will support sponsorships, promotions, and tune-in. Flexible ad insertion engines will enable limited commercial interruption experiences. Cloud based video manipulation will provide squeeze-backs and other mechanisms to create additional saleable real estate.

FAST services will also evolve to create new viewing modalities which have not been possible on traditional TV. New hybrid linear / on-demand experiences will become commonplace. Viewers will be able to move seamlessly from watching a linear channel and discovering a show they like, to binge-watch the entire series, or come across an interesting story on a live news channel and be able to dig deeper into it and watch related on-demand content. 

Traditional Broadcasters in the FAST Universe

The heart of the broadcasters' job is unchanged: deliver the best possible viewing experience to your target audience, wherever they may be. What has changed is their ability to reach more of their endemic viewers, more of the time and on more devices, while acquiring new and non-endemic viewers.

The arrival of FAST platforms gives broadcasters the opportunity to eliminate yet more legacy boundaries. Just as they did when they embraced cable and satellite distribution from their Over The Air roots, now they can transcend almost all remaining boundaries, from geography to device to time of day, and enjoy a substantially greater footprint on an entirely new class of devices and services.

This potential for innovation and accessibility truly sets FAST platforms apart from both traditional over-the-air linear and on-demand streaming platforms. Over the coming years, we will increasingly see that impact as more device manufacturers and VOD platforms, both ad-supported and paid, enter the space, providing an ever more diverse set of curated and personalized linear channels to their users. 

The growth of FAST platforms heralds massive change for the future of television, whilst still retaining the aspects of traditional broadcast television that viewers love. FAST platforms combine elements of innovation and tradition into the ideal linear viewing experience -- and the industry will be stronger for it.

[Editor's note: The is a contributed article from Frequency. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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