What the Sling Freestream FAST means for Dish Media

Dish Network’s Sling TV in February launched its new free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) service, Sling Freestream – a move that Dish Media SVP Kevin Arrix says brings more choice for consumers and scale for advertisers.

While Dish’s virtual MPVD Sling has offered free content ahead of a paywall before, Arrix characterized that foray as dipping a toe in the free streaming space whereas Freestream is a concerted effort in a fully formed product that’s delivering over 41,000 movies and TV shows on-demand and 210 linear-style channels at launch across several platform partners (such as Roku, Comcast, LG, Samsung and Vizio), without the need for signups or a Sling TV subscription.

In addition to a new content offering, the launch of a FAST service has implications for Dish Media, the corporate entity’s ad revenue division where Arrix is responsible for advertising sales, analytics and operations across Dish TV, Sling and now Freestream.

It’s still the early days of Freestream with a consumer marketing campaign to drive awareness and details of go-to-market and monetization plans coming up near-term, according to Arrix. But out of the gate, he said there are two key things that come up when talking to ad partners about the FAST: Number one being that it expands Dish Media, and second, Dish’s plans to improve a less-than-stellar advertising experience.

“We now have expanded our portfolio and have expanded our offerings, we’ve got more options for consumers and more scale for advertisers,” Arrix said in an interview with Fierce.  And now Dish has three legs to the proverbial stool with the ability to bring to market a full pay TV offering with Dish TV, a vMPVD service via Sling TV, and the Freestream FAST serving as the final leg in the “always-on, sometimes-on, and free to watch” TV trifecta.

As for advertising, Arrix said it’s pretty widely known in the streaming business that the experience is not ideal. Although Dish hasn’t been in the FAST market before, he noted partners often discuss challenges, such as over frequency in-pod, a lack of transparency and so on (pointing to some of the FAST advertising issues nicely laid out in a recent report from analysts at TVREV, which you can read more on here).

“One of the things that we want to do is identify one of those issues and take the high road and solve it,” he said, boosted by the tech stack built for Sling TV that will also support Freestream as helping to drive a better experience.

Tackling over frequency

Two of those challenges - transparency and accountability - Dish counts among its “North Stars” he said, but there are a few ad experience issues Dish will focus on first for Freestream, including over frequency in-pod (aka within an ad break).

Seeming the same commercial run multiple times in the same ad break is a frustrating pain point, both annoying to the consumer and for advertisers. However, Arrix thinks it’s something that’s fairly easy to solve, but acknowledged some pieces still need to align. And tackling over frequency within the same ad break benefits both the consumer and advertiser experience, ultimately helping Freestream.

“Customers will be like, ‘That was a better experience, I don’t see the same things that annoy me on Freestream that I see on other services’,” Arrix said. “So if you’ve focused on making the consumer and the viewing experience better, then by default you’re going to put yourself in a position to be successful.”

A better ad experience could make a difference as Freestream is entering a FAST space that already has competition from the likes of The Roku Channel, Paramount’s Pluto TV, Fox’s Tubi, Amazon Freevee, and smart TV maker FASTs from Samsung, Vizio and LG, among others. Freestream does mark the first FAST from a vMVPD, which TVREV analyst Alan Wolk has said makes it similar in many ways to independent FAST platforms such a Crackle and Plex in that they don’t own the programming like media company-owned FASTs or devices like OEMs.

As for addressing over frequency, Arrix said the first step is that sell-side organizations need to incorporate and adhere to a frequency cap, noting frequency cap technology has been around for a while and is readily available.

The more complex part, he explained, has to do with coordinating a variety of ecosystem partners – which can get a bit unwieldy in the FAST space since as a service provider Freestream has several different partners to work through. And within a FAST model, Dish itself gets a percent of the inventory, the content creator keeps a percentage, and then with Freestream distributed on an OEM such as Roku, LG, Vizio or Samsung, the smart TV makers also get a portion of the inventory.

“So you have multiple entities selling into the same sort of content channels,” he explained. In Freestream’s case, he said Dish has “to work on setting rules and guidelines and expectations with our partners….and say ‘this is what we’re pursuing and this is what we’re going to follow, this is what you have to adhere to’.”

It also comes back to the workflow and how FAST agreements are established.

“It means that you’ve got to pull all partners together, discuss it and solve it,” Arrix commented.

He went on to say that Dish will hold itself to a high standard of execution, aiming to take the role to “deliver and solve some of the issues that exist today and set the pace…for the industry, and set expectations for clients and agencies alike.”

Getting the ad experience right for consumers and brands is key for the FAST sector, which, as noted, has several hurdles to still overcome, but also presents a large opportunity for ad revenue. For CTV overall, ad spend grew from $14.2 billion in 2021 to $18.9 billion in 2022, up 33%, per eMarketer. And TVREV’s analysis projects FASTs’ share of total TV ad spend will jump from 17% in 2023 to 35% in 2025 (at which point it outpaces that of cable, broadcast or SVOD), and grow further to a 42% share or $42.6 billion by 2027.   

Lower ad load and interactivity

Ad load is a second important factor for Dish on the Freestream platform.

Arrix noted that as a distributor, Dish doesn’t usually get a say in the ad load on traditional live linear television – but in the FAST space it has the opportunity to dictate what the optimal ad load should be per hour. Freestream will land on a length that hits well with consumers, though he acknowledged the ad load “has to be lower” than traditionally.   

Out of the gate, he said Freestream will likely start out with similar ad load lengths that peers have implemented – citing a recent Tubi report that found most users of the competing FAST platform were satisfied with ad loads of 6 minutes or less per hour – compared to linear TV’s ad length average of 13-17 minutes per hour.

“Six minutes per hour is significantly better than what linear television ad load experiences. So I think we start somewhere in that zone and do some testing and see how we do,” Arrix commented.

New kinds of ad formats and interactivity could also eventually be part of the picture for Freestream, but not out of the gate.

So while Freestream will initially focus on core 15- and 30-second spots, Arrix said Dish is “definitely already looking at interactivity and what it means,” while noting it’s not the right fit for all consumers.

Indeed, that same Tubi report found 62% of consumers prefer standard video ad formats over newer options (although studies vary, as a recent Roku report found consumers that engaged with new ad formats had stronger ad recall and were more encouraged to look up a product after).

“If you do add in interactive ads, it’s got to…follow this opt-in model where it’s up to the consumer to activate it or not. It shouldn’t be something that disrupts the consumer experience” if they do in fact prefer standard 15-30 second spots, he said.

In Arrix’s view, thinking through and delivering on a positive ad experience is important for the TV industry as a whole.  

“As an industry, if we don’t make the experience for the consumer better and for the advertiser better, then we collectively risk disengagement,” he commented.

Freestream part of programmatic plans 

Dish already is one company leaning into the programmatic TV advertising space, something it will continue with Freestream.

“We are big believers in programmatic, and [Freestream] will be 100% part of our programmatic offering,” Arrix said.

Programmatic advertising, birthed in the digital advertising space, uses automated real-time technology for media buying rather than traditional methods.

Dish already does a lot of programmatic sales, including largely through private auction with Sling TV, as well as Dish Anywhere (a mobile version of Dish for those who are travelling) and Dish VOOD, also done in real-time programmatic private auction. Magnite is Dish’s biggest SSP (sell-side platform) partner on the programmatic front, but is effectively agnostic from a demand-side platform point of view, according to Arrix. Last year the company signed on SeaChange and Beachfront to boost programmatic efforts with sell-side and ad-insertion tools, although that’s Dish-only and strictly for true linear inventory so won’t apply to Freestream, according to Arrix.

“We think the industry is going to continue to grow and do more within the programmatic construct, and Freestream will be part of both our IO managed services and our programmatic offering,” he added.

Before Dish starts making strong advertising moves for Freestream, the first priority is to drive consumer awareness, with Sling TV president Gary Schanman and team pushing out marketing campaigns.

Arrix noted that Dish is prepared to activate Freestream inventory within the Sling tech stack but wants to let the service gain more momentum and see related upticks in usage before it becomes a standalone offering that’s brought to market for advertisers.

“Right now we’re still in prep mode and plugging in all the necessary wires, but it’ll be something that we are bringing out to market [in] Q2,” he said.