This time last year, FAST channels were on the periphery for many in the content business. Twelve months on, however, and the far-reaching potential of this rapidly emerging medium is beginning to be seen, writes Richard Middleton. And the consequences could be huge.
TBI is in the final throes of putting its next edition to bed and, ahead of London Screenings, we decided to find out the key distribution trends over the next 12 months from a raft of leading execs.
Oftentimes, these types of crystal ball gazing exercises provide mixed results: some go for the obvious, others like to go more left-field and suggest the most outrageous but almost feasible development they can think of. A South Korean drama becoming the world’s most popular programme, for example.
While those in the latter camp might sometimes see their predictions miss by a mile, they tend to come to fruition at one stage or another.
This time around, there was a common theme across almost every exec who was asked about the key trend for 2022. And the answer was FAST.
Free Ad-supported Streaming Television (FAST) channels allow rights holders to effectively become broadcasters in their own right. It is by no means a new way to consume content, of course. In many ways, FAST channels are just a modern reincarnation of the pre-streaming culture that existed when you flicked the TV on and picked a channel that had been scheduled for you. Imagine that.
The real difference with FAST is the route that the content takes to reach a viewer. Instead of having a broadcaster commissioning and acquiring shows, then scheduling them and sending it all over the airwaves to viewers, FAST channels tend to come direct from the rights holder.
The upshot, whichever way you look at it, is that distributors are becoming broadcasters. And that, coupled with the relative ease of launching your own FAST channel, could change everything.
Emergent but not new
While FAST’s potential is rapidly emerging, it is not new. Major distributors and many smaller players have been playing around with the tech over the past few years, working out how they might increase their revenue by installing a new window into the already sprawling real estate that is digital licensing.
But there has been a proliferation recently. Last week, we saw ITV Studios (ITVS) reveal that it is launching two channels in Europe with Samsung TV Plus, including one that the global distribution giant says will become the “home for the best European drama” produced by its own labels.
Storylands will be stocked with shows produced by labels that belong to the company, including Masontonio, from Suburra prodco Cattleya, Norwegian legal series Aber Bergen and period drama Un Village Français.
It also has a channel dedicated to US cooking competition Hell’s Kitchen, with both set to be launched across the UK and Europe, while Banijay has seen its three FAST channels in the US – Deal Or No Deal, Wipeout Xtra and Reel Truth Crime – also surge in popularity. The trio have doubled their hours of viewing (HOV) in 2021 compared to 2020, tracking upwards of 50 million hours across the year.
UK-based All3Media International is also growing its FAST bouquet, building on its single brand The Only Way Is Essex channel and reality-based So…Real in the US with a new Midsomer Murders service, which will launch across North America. Notably, the latter also mark the first channel operated and directly distributed by All3, rather than a third party.
It’s not just the giants, either. Producers such as US-based Electric Entertainment have gone direct, with its recently launched ElectricNow FAST channel allowing the company to “expose new viewers” to its output such as Leverage, Almost Paradise and The Outpost via Samsung TV Plus.
Germany’s Quintus Studios has also recently launched its Radical Docs FAST Channel via Rakuten TV, with the factual distributor building on an extensive digital footprint established via YouTube and stocking the service with hard-hitting shows such as Behind Bars – Worlds Toughest Prisons.
Risk & reward
At present, the revenue being derived from FAST is by all accounts negligible, at least outside of the US. But the opportunity to derive income – normally FAST channels provide either ad revenue potential or ad inventory for distributors – is clear and present.
It’s why the major players are all expanding their interest and investment in the space and it is also why so many of the distribution execs TBI has been talking to recently see FAST as offering some serious potential.
The way the market is developing also suggests growth: TBI understands platform operators are increasingly keen on ensuring shows on their service aren’t simply available on every other FAST platform, for example.
Just what impact FAST will have on the traditional side of the linear business – i.e. broadcasters – remains to be seen. At present, it is mainly a US phenomenon but the launch of ITVS’s channels in the UK and then Europe suggests we can expect viewing habits to cross the Atlantic.
Even if this happens, we are yet to see just how popular FAST will become.
Having had a decade of binging thanks to SVOD, the idea of reversing back to a linear set-up – even if it is your favourite show super-served episode after episode in a digital, lean back experience – still seems somewhat at odds with what we’ve been told about viewer consumption preferences.
It seems then that FAST will most likely be another part of the viewing ecosystem, an additional string to the bow for digital operators.
Distributors, for one, are clear that at the moment, FAST is only a tiny part of their strategies for getting content in front of viewers. It is just another window allowing a show to reach more viewers. And it can live alongside the existing ecosystem, without cannibalising any existing sales or consumption for broadcasters.
But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they? And while that might be the case for now, how much longer will it last?