What the Growth of FAST Really Tells Us About Viewers

Free ad-supported television (FAST) services have grown considerably since the pandemic. Of course, pioneers of the model, like Pluto TV, existed before the crisis, but it wasn’t until everyone was sequestered at home and wanting to stream everything that FAST really became important. Why? Perhaps one reason was because people wanted access to more choice and more content without subscribing to additional services. Remember that a lot of streaming viewers grew up in the arms of cable operators, given more channels (and choice) than they really wanted. And before you discount that idea, think about the average number of streaming services to which people subscribe; according to S&P Kagan, it was 6.8 as of March 2022.

That is the first thing the growth of FAST shows us: People want choice. Even though they complained about having to pay exorbitant cable or satellite operator fees for channels they never watched, it wasn’t the number of channels they cut the cord to get away from. It was the feeling of being charged for something they didn’t use. FAST appeals to that desire for selection but in a much better way. It’s free. And if you really think about it, perhaps what truly bothers people about pay-TV operators is that they appear to be double-dipping. They make money monthly from subscribers and also from advertisers. With FAST, the operators, like Pluto TV or Peacock, can make however much money they want from advertising, but there’s no cost to the viewer.

The second thing that FAST teaches us about viewers is how they want to view television content. If you ask anyone in the industry about what’s really broken with the streaming experience, they will invariably answer, “content discovery.” Yes, finding what to watch when it’s just a laundry list of titles is hard. But FAST makes content available to viewers in a manner similar to traditional broadcast. Titles are arranged in a linear fashion. When a user logs in to a FAST provider, they watch what is currently showing. Of course, there are also options for finding content, but the most prevalent interface features content in a linear fashion. From a technology perspective, the content isn’t live (this used to be called pseudo-live: treating a VOD asset like it’s a live stream), but it appears to the viewer like it is.

The growth of FAST could be attributed to the fact that it provides viewers with a content experience they are used to. Sometimes, people don’t want to find content to watch because they don’t have a specific title in mind. They just want to be entertained, informed, or amused. Viewers want to be presented with something. If it’s not interesting, they can just look at other channels until they find something that is interesting.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

The popularity and growth of FAST show us that viewing behavior, despite the rise of streaming, hasn’t really changed much at all. People want choice, but they want it in a way that meets their needs. The FAST experience is a combination of passive (choice is mindless; just flip through channels) and deliberate (search for a specific content title or genre). That’s the true innovation: FAST doesn’t scrap the broadcast experience with which so many are familiar; it is evolving it in a way that broadcast could never do. And FAST will continue to evolve to improve upon the viewer experience.

What might be next? Imagine personalized and individualized linear channels based on data analysis that would also include third-party data in addition to the first-party data collected by the viewer choices in the platform. Viewers could channel-surf content that’s selected (and stitched together) specifically for them. The ads, of course, would be contextual as well.

When you think about it this way, how viewers behave really hasn’t changed. But the means by which they watch is getting better every day.