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Why Niche Programmers Are First in FAST

From the early days of FAST, the agility and strategic innovation that are hallmarks of startups and niche content companies have been critical to success in the FAST world. As the Independent Streaming Alliance (ISA) emerges to heighten the advocacy of niche FAST providers, Evan Shapiro, CEO, ESHAP, Cameron Saless, Chief Business Officer, Trusted Media Brands, and Chris Knight, President & CEO, Gusto Worldwide Media, discuss how the FAST market began and has matured around nimble startups in this clip from Streaming Media Connect 2023.

Shapiro mentions that he recently discussed the formation of the ISA with Saless, “Which I think to a certain extent is about creating a collective strength amongst the independent and more niche-oriented streamers,” he says. “Something that I found interesting as I was looking into the formulation of the organization was that you all were the first to get to be on the FAST platforms. You were there early; you were helped to invent the platform for the most part.” He notes that in the US, as in Europe, smaller companies that are nimbler and more innovative have more leverage to take risks. He asks Saless to discuss further the ISA and why he thinks the niche players played a groundbreaking role in the streaming ecosystem.

Saless mentions that he and the others on the panel have been living “parallel lives” for a long time, and due to the nature of the media business, innovation is key to success. He says he used to work for Jukin Media. “In the early days, we started our business on social,” he says. “We were acquiring and curating content on social media. The reach you could get on Facebook and YouTube was incredible. You could build a brand relatively quickly. The engagement was off the charts. And, of course, then, like normal, some challenges come with platforms as they grow. And so, over time, you start to look for new places. And part of our strategy was always to take our content, which could live in various places, and try to test it out.”

Saless mentions the very early days of FAST. “I think it was 2014 or 2015. We had folks like Pluto and Xumo coming to us saying they were going to launch something like this,” he says. “To be honest, I was very skeptical, just because of the type of content we had. And launching these things is not easy.” He recounts how he was amazed by an early demo from Xumo. “They were going to launch 25 channels. We were one of 25. I gave them some short-form content, and we blew the numbers,” he said. “I think we [came in] second out of 25 channels. So, for me, that was sort of a signal. And if you fast forward to today, we have a dedicated team of 50-60 people. We are building programming, specifically long-form programming for FAST channels. We have built out an entire team to sell and monetize that content. I think the whole point behind the ISA is that a lot of us, while we've been the beneficiaries of being early, moving quickly, and investing ahead of the curve, are all starting to see where some challenges are coming down the road. And we all believe deeply in this ecosystem. We see huge opportunities, but we've started to highlight to others who maybe aren't seeing it, [saying], ‘Look, there are some problems out there, and we think this group can help at least start that conversation.’”

He further elaborates on the specifics of the ISA. “The ISA is a collection of, I think, 10 to 15 independent companies,” he says. “We're going to be adding a lot more to that list, but we're all trying to tackle different things. And we're focused really on four areas. We're looking at distribution challenges around distribution. It's a lot of platforms now. Discovery is something we should probably talk about. For example, we're looking at demand and how media is sold, bought, and distributed. We're looking at measurements, a huge issue for advertisers, platforms, and programmers alike. We're looking at diversity because we represent a lot of underrepresented audiences. It's early days. We're really bullish on the FAST space, but we realize the [for the] next layer of growth we will have to solve some of these problems to really unleash the big opportunities in front of us.”

Shapiro tells Knight, “I think part of what the ISA wants to do is create some leverage for the smaller players. But pushing innovation through the ecosystem is a big part of the initiative you're trying to create here, correct?”

“True that,” Knight says. “And not just in our business and media business, but virtually in every industry. Small companies are nimble, and small companies innovate. Large companies pay dividends. It's not in their DNA to go out on a limb. When we launched originally up here in Canada, we were a pay television channel on cable and satellite. I had to lease time on somebody else's master control system because it was prohibitively expensive for me to build my own for one channel in one country. We now have multiple channels and multiple languages going to 162 countries on over 40 platforms. If you had told me ten years ago that Gusto would be on in as many countries as it is, I would've said, ‘Put your drink down. You've had enough.’ It's been a crazy ride so far. I remember talking to the Pluto guys when they were working out of shared office space over a bodega in Manhattan before they actually got to have an office. So that's been tremendous. But as Cameron [Saless] says, it's time to take a look at where the whole thing is going and put some best practices in place.”

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