TV painter Bob Ross is suddenly having a resurgence — and not just because there’s a new Owen Wilson movie, Paint, based on the late, soothing artist who died almost 27 years ago.
A channel solely featuring Ross, whose “The Joy of Painting” ran on public television from 1983 to 1994, is one of Cinedigm’s most successful in the booming free ad-supported streaming television, or FAST, marketplace, according to chairman and CEO Chris McGurk.
It’s “like Mister Rogers for millennials and Gen Z,” McGurk said last August at the OTT.X Summit.
“The success of The Bob Ross Channel has been a joy to watch — no pun intended,” adds Yolanda Macias, Cinedigm’s chief content officer. “When we first saw how well this iconic content did on platforms like Twitch — a platform focused on gamers and video game-related content — it opened our eyes to the possibilities of broadening the audience for this feel-good, inspirational, unique programming.”
The Bob Ross Channel can be found on Amazon Freevee, Atmosphere TV, Cineverse, Fubo, LG, Pluto TV, Samsung TV Plus, Sling TV, Redbox, The Roku Channel, Tubi, Vizio WatchFree, Xumo and more.
The show, in which Ross creates in real time “happy little clouds” and other scenery, appeals to older streamers as well. Sixty-something Jim McCullough of Los Angeles binges old Bob Ross episodes in part because he’s become an avid painter.
“The show holds up forever since his guidance on color theory, blending, composition and layering, etc., are universal,” McCullough says. “His teaching style is Zen-like and soothing.”
Bob Ross isn’t the only franchise riding the FAST wave. Julia Child’s cooking shows, Bob Barker’s “The Price Is Right,” numerous “CSIs” and even the 1980s puppet alien sitcom “ALF” have their own channels.
They’re the ultimate binge — FAST channels comprising a single series or franchise. Via these proliferating uber-niche outlets, consumers can click and stream an entire channel that offers content solely from one subject or series.
Many of these channels are offered by independent suppliers such as Cinedigm, Shout! Factory, FilmRise and Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment and its Redbox subsidiary. But even the major studios have joined the fray, with Warner Bros. Discovery placing channels on free ad-supported app Tubi and others, offering top series such as “Westworld,” “Babylon 5,” “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”
Observers say the FAST trend is based on two things: Consumers are growing tired of paying for so many subscriptions, and yet they really enjoy binge viewing.
During the DVD boom, TV DVD was one of the most successful genres, taking advantage of consumer delight in watching TV episodes on DVD in succession, particularly as shows such as “Lost” featured continuing storylines. It spawned the term “binge viewing.” Binging transitioned with the entertainment industry as subscription streaming pioneer Netflix played into that consumer appetite by offering shows all at once, so consumers could watch a whole season or series in one or two sittings.
Indeed, binge viewing has become a consumer habit.
A July survey found nearly two in five Americans (39%) reporting they feel satisfied after binge-watching content. The survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by free global streaming media platform Plex and OnePoll found that after binge-watching content, respondents also reported feeling relaxed (35%) and accomplished (28%), while 57% said they felt sad when they finish a show they really liked. A third (33%) said they had spent four to six hours watching content in a single sitting.
In an earlier Whip Media-commissioned survey, half of global consumers on its TV Time app said they binge-watch most or all of their shows, and more than three-quarters (78%) said they prefer a simultaneous — rather than weekly — release of all episodes.
Meanwhile, ad-supported streaming is growing. Nearly seven in 10 (69%) TV content viewers in the United States use free streaming services at least monthly, a sharp increase from 42% in 2019, according to a 2023 Horowitz Research study. Parks Associates projects the number of U.S. households using ad-supported streaming services will reach 52 million in 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 6.7%.
“Around one-third of households are using at least one ad-supported streaming service,” Elizabeth Parks, president and CMO of Parks, said in December.
Indeed, in a Q4 2022 Hub study, the majority (57%) of respondents said they’d rather watch ads and pay $4 to $5 less per month for a streaming service.
It’s all part of a transition in entertainment consumption.
“In total, major U.S. cable TV and satellite TV have lost 25 million subscribers since 2012,” notes Mark Fisher, president and CEO of OTT.X, a streaming trade association. “Those consumers started subscribing to SVOD services, and to virtual MVPDs as well. But, once they maxed out on how much they wanted to spend each month, they started looking for additional programming. FAST channels are free to the consumer and funded by advertising and provide an incredible assortment of programming — most of which is geared to enthusiasts. And it’s not just reruns of vintage programming — there’s plenty of original content available, too.
“Another reason for the success of FAST channels in general is that the cable-cutting consumer still wants, on the right occasion, a ‘lean back’ TV experience without having to select an episode or a movie to watch. Sometimes it’s for background, sometimes it’s to have on when resting on the couch, and sometimes it’s turned on to go off to sleep to.”
A ‘Lean Back’ Experience FilmRise, a Brooklyn-based film and television studio and operator of the FilmRise Streaming Network, an independently owned portfolio of ad-supported streaming apps and FAST channels, has long been in the ad-supported space. The company has been plumbing the popularity of single-series channels for some time.
“FAST is still very much about the lean-back experience,” says Daniel Gagliardi, VP of digital distribution and business development at FilmRise. “Our most successful single-series channels leverage that fact — these are episodic, self-contained ‘comfort shows’ that you can binge without necessarily following every second.”
Combined, FilmRise’s top five single-series channels accumulated nearly 25 billion streaming minutes in 2022, they say. Vizio has a bird’s eye view of streaming viewers via ACR data from its smart-TV app, letting the company observe “lean back” behavior. Greg Barnard, director of content acquisitions and strategy, says franchise channels are a strong draw.
“Single-series channels over-index in viewership and are a unique execution in the FAST environment as compared to traditional linear TV,” he says. “This is driven by notable faces and prominent titles that inspire more engagement from our users who are browsing for specific shows.”
Indeed, familiarity is a key draw.
“Success comes with good content and titles that audiences are familiar with,” he adds. “These channels provide a cable-like experience which encourages viewers to come back for more. Single series and curated Vizio Features channels are channels that you turn on and leave on. These are the channels where volume-viewing happens, and we are starting to see consistency in the viewing behavior of the audience.”
Hooked on Classics
Perhaps because viewers already know and love it, vintage TV is making a comeback with FAST channels.
AVOD network Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment has found success with “The Price Is Right: The Bob Barker Years.” The company has three flagship AVOD streaming services — Redbox, Crackle and Chicken Soup for the Soul — and also operates Redbox Free Live TV, a FAST service with more than 160 channels.
“We were generally surprised and impressed with how well a show that is 40 to 50 years old still resonates with both an older, but also a younger audience,” says Laura Florence, SVP and GM of digital for Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment.
Shout! Factory also has leaned into classic TV for FAST channels, including the quirky “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (“MST3K”) franchise, which launched in the late 1980s.
“The MST3K channel, Carol Burnett Show channel, and Johnny Carson TV have been extremely successful and are distributed on almost all the big platforms — Roku, Freevee, Vizio, Sling TV, Plex, Tubi, Pluto TV, as well as many others,” says Gene Pao, EVP of strategy and digital at Shout! Factory.
While measurement is inconsistent among platforms and audiences are “very hard to quantify,” he says Shout! estimates that each of these three channels reach well over a million viewers per month.
“When viewers start watching a streaming service, they gravitate toward shows they know and love — kind of like going to a restaurant for the first time, you are likely to order a burger or salad instead of something more exotic,” Pao says.
Like Chicken Soup and other content distributors, Shout! has found that the audience for this type of classic TV isn’t necessarily just older consumers.
“Surprisingly, we’ve found that a large portion of our audience are younger people, including Gen Zs that weren’t even born when the shows first aired,” Pao says.
Best Ever Channels, a TV digital syndication studio, developer of original FAST and AVOD channel brands, and a distributor of licensed streaming entertainment, has also ridden the classic TV ad-supported craze.
“We have found our classic series like ‘Dragnet,’ ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ or ‘The Lucy Show’ to consistently pull in big viewership numbers, even though these classic series have been in circulation for decades,” says co-CEO Jonathon Barbato. “It surprises us at times how hits remain hits use after use, but it seems to consistently be the case.”
Almost 50 years after the rock icon’s death, Cinedigm has found success with an Elvis Presley channel, featuring his films, specials and more.
Classic TV single-franchise FAST channels are a draw for ad-supported services that are trying to attract and grow subscribers. They offer familiar, voluminous content.
“[Drawing viewers] requires a recognizable property with hundreds of episodes,” Pao says. “In the long term, single IP channels are likely to rotate. Platforms have found that single IP shows are doing well to attract new viewers to their platform. As a result, we offer several more channels, such as ‘Farscape,’ ‘ALF,’ ‘Trailer Park Boys,’ ‘Space 1999’ … and others in the works.”
Indeed, free streaming platforms such as Tubi and Pluto TV are looking to offer an easy and convenient transition from the traditional viewing experience.
“Our FAST channels cater to an audience who is transitioning from a more traditional TV viewing experience to streaming,” says Sam Harowitz, VP of content acquisition and partnerships at Tubi. “Our aim is to attract new viewers and super-serve existing users, creating a drop-in, lean-back experience where they can easily tune in to their favorite content.”
“Time and time again, we see that great movies and TV series, like art and novels, withstand the test of time,” adds Pluto TV SVP of programming Scott Reich. “They are evergreen and will continue to find new audiences regardless of when they originally launched.”
One of his favorite examples is “The Addams Family,” which has under 40 hours of content, but offers all 64 episodes in the original series, which ran on network television from 1964 to 1966.
“With the various movies and spinoffs through the years, the original continues to hold its own,” he says.
True crime and procedural genres — which have been a hit just about everywhere in streaming — also are attracting viewers to the “new TV” of free binge watching. Indeed, crime pays.
“The true crime and classic TV verticals have been massively successful for us, and for the FAST space at large,” says Joseph Dussault, director of FAST digital distribution at FilmRise.
He and Gagliardi note some of the company’s most-watched IP channels include “Forensic Files,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “World’s Most Evil Killers.” The channels can be seen on such platforms as Roku Channel, Amazon’s Freevee, Tubi, Vizio Watch Free, Samsung TV Plus and Pluto TV.
Pluto TV has also found crime shows are a strong draw.
“One of the areas that we have seen enormous success is within our single series and franchise-focused channels, particularly those focused on procedurals,” says Reich. “The CSI channel on Pluto TV has been one of our top performing channels, which backs our belief in the power of a proven franchise and its ability to spark mass appeal and increased audience engagement. To meet the growing viewer demand, we spun off two additional CSI channels, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, to meet that audience demand. We did the same thing for our En Español category with CSI en Español, CSI: NY en Español and CSI: Miami en Español. We have seen that procedurals, like ‘CSI,’ ‘Blue Bloods’ and ‘Criminal Minds,’ do particularly well with FAST audiences.
“Procedurals not only have a wide appeal but they are easy to watch in that they have a start, middle and end that doesn’t require you to watch an entire season to enjoy. The iconic procedurals attract long-running fans who often search for like-minded content, and we’ve seen that with the growing popularity of the crime category on the platform.”
“CSI” saw more than 17 million users and hit over 22 billion total viewing minutes in the past two years, says Reich.
“Success of channels like that hit on a few key elements: the power of a franchise and a format that allows audiences to drop into any episode at any time,” he says.
Beyond Crime and Classics
Other genres that cater to repeat viewing are also good fodder for FAST channels.
“We have a growing portfolio of channels across FAST, AVOD and SVOD, all focused on enthusiast audiences,” says Cinedigm’s Macias. “These include horror (Screambox), anime (RetroCrush), family (Dove Channel), Asian film (AsianCrush) and many more that super-serve fans of these particular genres.”
It’s about catering to consumer tastes.
“They are attracted to these channels for a number of reasons, including the knowledge that they will not only find the content they are passionate about, but may also discover new favorites chosen by our programming teams which are made up of fans themselves,” Macias says. “We make a concerted effort to serve and grow engaged dedicated audiences with stories authentically curated by programmers who know their fanbase.”
Reality show competitions also are popular, says Best Ever Channels’ Barbato, “whether it’s traditional reality, like ‘Fear Factor,’ or new series with a positive spin, like our do-good series ‘Play to Win’ with Ray Higdon.”
“Cheaters,” a reality show in which the camera spies on and uncovers a cheating partner, is one of FilmRise’s most popular channels.
Lifestyle (food and travel) also has a broad audience, adds Vizio’s Barnard.
“I enjoy the plethora of cooking channels like ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ or DIY channels like ‘Family Handyman,’” chimes in OTT.X’s Fisher.
It can also be — as with the appeal of Bob Ross — the tranquil nature of a show.
A surprising hit observed at Vizio is “Love Nature,” a Blue Ant Media channel that has been ranked as one of the highest-performing FAST channels since its launch in 2021, says the company’s Barnard. The channel offers documentaries and series that celebrate the complexity of life on Earth.
“The channel provides great ‘backdrop’ programming,” he says.
“Viewership numbers for this channel illustrate our audience’s appetite for wildlife and nature programming.”
Timing to take advantage of a sudden binge appetite can also provide a push for FAST channels.
The Chicken Soup for the Soul channel pivoted to having an all-royal content channel for a month when Queen Elizabeth II passed away.
“It was widely successful,” says the company’s Florence. “Being able to pivot to current events and lean in to a core theme works really well.”
Seasonal content works as well.
“Our Christmas movie channel was the No. 1 channel for us for the six weeks it was available,” says Vizio’s Barnard. “This type of content also performs well with our network partners and other platforms in the industry, demonstrating that serving up more of what audiences are searching for is a winning strategy in streaming.”
A Hyper-Niche Future
Industry observers say that hyper-niche, enthusiast programming has a strong future in the ad-supported marketplace, but quality and discoverability will be key to its success.
“As the industry evolves with more and more entrants coming into the space, there is most definitely an anticipated saturation point,” says Pluto TV’s Reich. “However, having the longest tenure in the short-lived business of FAST, we recognized early on, based on audience feedback and our own data, that it’s not about the amount of channels we offer, but the quality of those channels. We regularly audit and optimize our offerings to ensure that our programming lineup is undiluted and meeting the needs of existing audiences while attracting new ones.”
Still, OTT.X’s Fisher says the market will continue to grow, especially as advertisers see the value of targeting a niche.
“Brands are realizing the value of using enthusiast channels to reach their consumer demographic groups,” he says. “As the ad funding grows, the quality and quantity of programming will continue to grow. And more consumers will become regular viewers of FAST enthusiast channels — getting all of their programming via OTT versus cable.”
Oversaturation isn’t really a problem, he says, as long as enthusiasts can find what they want.
“Enthusiast channels, and all FAST channels and platforms, need to continue to focus on making sure the consumer has a great experience,” he says. “Consumers need to be able to locate programming more easily, and not be forced to scroll through hundreds of channels to get to the one they are looking for. Channels need to be more ubiquitous across platforms and across devices, so the consumer doesn’t have to go into a certain room in their home that has a specific brand CTV or device in order to watch the channel they want to watch. And, while consumers are very willing to watch ads that are supporting their free programming — those ads need to be creative and entertaining, and they need to be appropriate, and the insertion timing needs to be right, and the frequency of individual ads needs to be right, too.”
FilmRise’s Gagliardi and Dussault are bullish on the future.
“Passive viewing means that shows have a much longer shelf-life on FAST than they might on traditional broadcast or VOD,” Dussault add. “We’ve seen virtually no audience fatigue among our single-series channels.”
Best Ever Channels’ Barbato and co-CEO Barry Gordon say ad-supported streaming has the advantage of being free, with no monetary commitment.
“FAST is an important ‘discovery’ mechanism for viewers,” says Gordon. “It gives them a sampling of what to watch after they’ve binged on all the content they already know. FAST in its current form and execution is not unique in its offering. At its core, it’s an amalgamation of free over-the-air channels meets free basic cable. That said, both of these businesses were extraordinarily successful, and evolutionary with respect to their contributions to the media industry. For the FAST/AVOD ecosystem to achieve its utmost potential and be evolutionary versus transitory, it needs to be fully focused on innovation, and evolve into offering even more highly targeted user engagement content experiences (i.e. more quality, branded FAST channels; genre-based AVOD hubs; seasonal/ever-changing single title/series pop-up channels, etc). Consumers already have amazing premium/pay subscription choices (Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, et. al.), access free cable channels, and local TV. The FAST/AVOD ecosystem must continue to differentiate and evolve into its own ‘go to’ free destination for discovery and appointment content.”
Ad-supported streaming also has an advantage in that its subjects can be endless, says Fisher.
“The consumer wants choice, and this plethora of programming gives them choice,” he says.
And that programming has yet to be fully tapped.
“We have crunched the numbers internally, and only about 3% of all films and TV series ever made are available on streaming, so we see a big opportunity to be the ‘Spotify of streaming video’ through our Cineverse service, with a goal of licensing hundreds of thousands of titles, making them available through linear and on-demand options, and using AI and other innovative technology to aid content discovery in a hyper-personalized way to find the stories they love,” says Cinedigm’s Macias.
It’s all about the evolution of entertainment.
“What will happen,” Fisher says, “is that FAST will simply morph into what we know as ‘TV,’ with consumers utilizing FAST channels instead of those provided by MVPDs or vMVPDs.”