TV & Streaming

‘An equivalent to broadcast:’ Why streaming services are investing in lean-back TV

FAST channels can help serve viewers’ preferences and aid in content discovery, media executives said during Advertising Week.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: Aleksandra Konoplia/Getty Images

· 4 min read

With thousands of programs available to watch on demand across dozens of services, modern TV-watching often requires spending a lot of time searching through content catalogs. But media companies are increasingly interested in recreating the way traditional TV used to deliver programming: by having something already playing as soon as the TV is on.

Instead of searching through, say, Peacock’s free library for a specific episode of Real Housewives, you could choose a preprogrammed channel that’s always streaming reality TV and jump right in.

These kinds of always-on digital channel offerings—referred to as free ad-supported streaming, or FAST—stand in contrast to ad-supported video-on-demand, or AVOD, and their popularity is growing, well, fast. In the second quarter of the year, 55% of consumers said they used at least one FAST service, according to an August report from Hub Entertainment Research, up almost 10 percentage points from Q4 of last year; Comcast Advertising reported in July that six in 10 households with connected TVs were using FAST services, more than doubling year over year.

Many ad-supported platforms see those linear-like channels as a way to grow the engagement and scale they need to attract advertiser dollars, media executives said during Advertising Week New York.

“Everyone needs a FAST platform,” Kelly Metz, managing director, advanced TV activation, Omnicom Media Group, told Marketing Brew onstage Tuesday. “There needs to be an equivalent to broadcast in the streaming world.”

Give the people what they want

It hasn’t always been this way. Subscription streaming trailblazers like Netflix have long solely featured catalog viewing, and some early entrants to free streaming, like Fox-owned Tubi, debuted with exclusively on-demand viewing. Some of those decisions were due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about what exactly was causing consumers’ waning interest in cable-TV packages, said Sean Doherty Jr., co-founder and COO of the connected TV advertising platform Wurl.

“The consumption method of linear lean-back television—‘I don’t know what I want to watch, I just want to browse a guide and find something that piques my interest’—that kind of consumption method, I think, got unfairly bucketed in with cord-cutting,” Doherty Jr. said.

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Many content providers have increasingly recognized that not all programming is best experienced on demand. For programming like news, “that FAST experience really mimics the linear broadcast relationship that [viewers] have with our channels on terrestrial broadcast,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, SVP of streaming video services at Hearst Television.

And just as viewers may periodically seek out different genres of programming, they also may want the option to channel surf.

“It’s not [that] some audiences do VOD and some audiences do FAST,” Mark Rotblat, chief revenue officer of Tubi, told Marketing Brew onstage Tuesday. “It’s really about the mood that they’re in and the content that they want to consume.”

There are some content benefits to programming a FAST channel, executives said. For one, they can help viewers discover on-demand content by serving up series a viewer may not otherwise search for.

“FAST channels are not only a great lean-back experience; they’re also a great discovery tool,” Rafael Urbina, GM and EVP of AVOD streaming at TelevisaUnivision-owned free streamer Vix, told Marketing Brew onstage Tuesday. “We’ve had a lot of success with single-series channels where we’re looping episodes from a specific series, and typically that results in people going and circling back through on demand.”

With a good-enough recommendation engine, programming can also be  catered to different viewers directly, potentially helping serve up shows that are more relevant to them, the thinking goes.

“It provides the lean-back ease of experience that cable has provided in the past in decades gone, but it adds to that the promise of the internet,” Nick Sallon, chief partnerships officer at Bloomberg Media, said during an onstage discussion Monday.

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