LAS VEGAS — There’s no question that FAST — free, ad-supported television — is booming, with domestic revenues expected to triple to about $12 billion over the next three years.
But speakers on the NAB’s “FAST Channels and Furious Growth” panel discussion April 17 at the NAB show were divided on whether FAST is a new, modern replacement for cable television.
“I absolutely think it’s a replacement [for cable],” said Amy Kuessner, EVP of content strategy and global partnerships at Paramount Streaming, with direct responsibility for Pluto.
“I think everyone here sees the cable numbers every day, and they are dwindling,” she said. “And I used to be on the that side of the business. It’s similar in the fact that what’s old is new again — we’re linear again, it’s back in style, but it’s digital linear, and ad-supported. It’s the same in that we’re still programming niche channels, which is what cable did so well, but it’s different in that it’s not Cable 2.0. It’s becoming this whole ‘must carry’ thing; it’s cable without borders, so it’s very different in the marketplace approach.”
Philippe Guelton, chief revenue officer of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, took an opposing stance.
“I don’t think FAST is the new cable at all,” he said. “And the reason is when you cut the cord, when you cut cable, you lost a lot more than what’s available on FAST today. Think about the premium channels — the HBOs, the Showtimes. This where the actual investment was taking place in cable, and now that is happening on SVOD, for the most part — this is where a lot of that content lives.
“And then you have the broadcast content, the bigger and more general entertainment channels on cable, which have become really the AVOD experience. Movie-watching on FAST is not the ideal situation. VOD is the best experience for consumers to watch movies.
“So what, then, is FAST? I think it’s almost equivalent to syndicated television. This is where all that content goes after it’s gone through all those other windows. It’s almost like syndicated television on steroids, in a way, because there’s so much more [content].
“So, I think you really have to look at the entire ecosystem — FAST, AVOD, SVOD and TVOD — to really replace cable for the consumer.”
Jim Packer, president of worldwide television distribution at Lionsgate, agreed.
“We lost 7 million homes in the MVPD ecosystems last year,” Packer said. “Where they all went is part of the fascination of what we do. Some people have SVOD and SVOD is starting to bundle, so you have that dynamic. You’ve got somebody who buys a Samsung TV and may not even be aware of FAST, then discovers it for the first time. I think that one of the things that makes it a little bit tricky for FAST, and that over time I hope will continue to improve, is that each of the platforms looks a lot different and is a little bit less consistent than the MVPD ecosystem.
“So I think it [FAST] is happening, and it is part of the transition, but everybody’s competing for those 7 million people.”
Adam Lewinson, chief content officer of Tubi, maintains there’s room for different business models as audiences continue to migrate from cable to Internet-based services.
“Tubi is predominantly a video-on-demand platform,” he said, “and our vision of the future is that the future of streaming television is going to be predominantly on demand. Having said that, we still have 200 FAST channels, leaning heavily into news and sports. There’s always going to be a demand for live.”
Asked which demographics are driving the growth of FAST, Kuessner said that at Pluto, “We tremendously over indexed in Hispanic and African-American audiences. I want to say that the general market for African-American television viewing is 20%; we’re at 30%. And because of that, we were one of the first platforms — 2019, I want to say — to roll out an entire Hispanic offering with over 50 channels. And then we do have channels that are more targeted to African-Americans, whether it’s Black cinema or classics. Those channels are what I call our power channels, and they were just off the charts in terms of performance.”
Tubi’s Lewinson said half of his company’s viewers identify as multicultural. “We’re also one of the younger streamers, so a little over a third of our audience is in that coveted 18-34 demo. And what’s really interesting, and probably one of the reasons why we’re still very heavily a video-on-demand platform as opposed to these FAST channels, is that so much of our audience grew up on YouTube or Netflix and they like the on-demand, they like our personalization tools, they’re used to navigating the algorithms, and the linear environment is just not the best experience for certain kinds of content. If you’re going to watch a movie, you’re probably going to want to watch it from the beginning.
“So what we find is that the viewers who are leaning more heavily into these FAST channels tend to skew older, and I think a lot of that is just transitional — the electronic program guides, not everyone grew up with that, but for [older viewers] it just feels comfortable — ‘Oh, this feels like my cable box.'”