Amagi co-founder dishes on solving FAST business challenges

When it comes to challenges in the growing world of free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST), it’s not so much a technical problem as it is a business one, according to Amagi co-founder and chief revenue officer Srinivasan KA.

The FAST ecosystem is still developing as it becomes more popular and there are a variety of players. For a good primer on the different parts of the FAST ecosystem, check out this report by analysts at TVREV, which states FASTs (which provide both linear channel-surfing style programming and on-demand content) are the new cable.

As the report outlines, there are media company-owned FASTs (such as Paramount’s Pluto TV, Fox’s Tubi, and Comcast’s Xumo – Warner Bros. Discovery has also said it’s exploring launching a FAST ); FASTs offered by smart TV and device OEMs embedded in interfaces such as Samsung TV Plus, Vizio WatchFree+, LG Channels, The Roku Channel, and Amazon’s Freevee and; and single publisher apps such as Crackle, along with wide-range content providers that populate linear and on-demand channels for others.

While at IBC in Amsterdam over the weekend, tech vendor Amagi – a major player in the space - took the opportunity to showcase its solutions for broadcasters and content owners. That includes an upgraded version of its broadcast-grade channel playout platform Cloudport and its Amagi Live orchestration product, which dynamically manages a variety of live events for linear and VOD channels.   

At the show, which attracted over 37,000 visitors in its first year back in-person since 2019, KA sat down with Fierce to discuss challenges related to FASTs that Amagi is working to address. The company’s goal is to help customers stand up channels quickly and at a lower cost, to ultimately monetize their content.

“Essentially it’s a business problem that we have to solve, it’s not a technical problem,” KA told Fierce. He also noted that many customers’ costs are not tech-related, but rather people in terms of the manpower needed for certain undertakings.

For example, if a large content owner, production studio or TV network has a massive library with say 10,000-50,000 hours of content (some Amagi customers have 750,000 hours of content, he noted), they want to make it available and monetize it through FAST.  

And in his view, Amagi is the only vendor that has one unified platform that caters to dual sides of broadcast players needs and the FAST ecosystem, rather than a pure play for either.  It has a suite of products focused on channel creation, distribution and monetization. Some of Amagi’s clients include A+E Networks UK, beIN Sports, Curiosity Stream, Cinedigm, Warner Bros. Discovery, Fox Networks, Gusto TV, NBCUniversal, Tastemade, Tegna and Vice Media among others. Vidaa this summer announced it would leverage Amagi to bring FAST channels to users in the Americas, Australia and U.K.

Here are the key FAST businesses challenges, as KA sees them, and how Amagi is addressing them:

  1. A lot of content isn’t built for ads. KA said that much FAST content wasn’t made for distribution in an ad-supported environment. That’s because there aren’t cue points or breaks as in traditional TV.

    “I need to have places where I want to have cue points or breaks. I don’t want to have a YouTube-like experience that randomly cuts off in the middle of a sentence” and results in a terrible user experience, he said.

    And if you’re a content owner with, say, three-quarters of a million hours of content – to manually figure out where to put in breaks would require “a lot a lot of money” - to the point where it might not be recouped, he noted.

    Amagi built a product called Tornado that it already provides to customers, which is ML/AI-based and identifies where to insert breaks based on audio, video, scene changes or other indicators, and makes it an automated process. For those that want or feel comfortable with a manual element, it provides rankings showing candidate options of where to insert ads that customers can pick and choose themselves, or opt to automate.
  2. Localizing content. If content owners want to bring their libraries to different markets and localize it, programming might not be ready to support it.  For example, being set for closed captioning. The issue KA identified here is how to get to the level where automated accurate closed captioning is achievable in an affordable way.

    In this scenario Amagi has an automated Google Speech-to-text solution, where AI/ML “actually tracks closely with manual closed caption today in terms of accuracy.” Customers have tested, and in terms of the numbers of errors they see per thousand words, “it’s as accurate as humans,” he said.

    In some cases, like noise or other multiple people talking, it doesn’t work quite as well, he acknowledged, but otherwise is on par with manual closed captioning. Without automation, manual closed captioning costs around $75 per minute, according to KA.

    “That’s just unaffordable” with a massive library he said.

    Localizing content for local subtitles – or ideally local dubbing if possible – is another challenge that again, is expensive. Amagi is starting to work with third-party partners that can provide an AI/ML-based subtitling, but he acknowledged there’s still some ways to go on this challenge.
  3. Stitching and scheduling content. Now that companies have all this content, they need to stitch it all together, where he said some customers are creating between 30-40 channels. For that to happen companies need 30-40 programmers scheduling it every day – again coming back to expense and how to automate.

    “90% of the work can be done by machines,” he said, while still keeping a bit of human element – such as setting primetime schedules. “Broad strategy planning can be done manually, everything else can be automated.” For things like promos, ad break lengths, and others, Amagi has a tool for automation rules to automatically fill up the day’s schedule, thereby optimizing the number of resources needed to run programming.
  4. Frictionless distribution. There’s the commercial side of distribution but also the technical side. For the latter, every video platform needs different video formats, various metadata formats, and ad integration, he noted. One of Amagi’s claims to fame is it can seamlessly pre-integrate these platforms.

    “We can deliver a channel in minutes compared to months if you had to do it manually with each of these platforms,” he said.
  5. Monetization and ad-insertion. With channels up and running, companies’ next objective is to make money, which he said requires robust ad insertion that’s optimized for FAST. 

He cited a simple example of a challenge today. In server-side ad insertion systems, if a user watches an ad, changes the channel and then comes back, the system assumes it’s a new user.

“So that entire ad break is wasted,” KA said. 

Looking at use cases, Amagi optimized the ad insertion for FASTs, including to improve render rate or fill rate “to ensure that every ad that is reserved for you is served for you.” This is enabled by Thunderstorm, it’s third-generation ad-insertion solution.

This maximizes revenues for Amagi customers and improves the user experience, according to KA. Eventually the aim is to personalize FAST channel programming and make the experience much better. Thunderstorm already operates processing 50 billion ad opportunities and 1.8 billion viewership hours per year across 2,100 channels on various streaming platforms.

A final aspect he called out is how customers get data and analytics back.

“One good thing about FAST and connected TV is I get real-time data on every viewer.” It’s possible to see what show is working well, he said, whether it’s the first 10 minutes or the last 10 minutes, to make tweaks for marketing, distribution, content and other aspects – enabling “tons of intelligent decisions based on data.”

KA also sees the broadcast side and FAST/OTT sides of its business converging, where customers want to manage their connected TV and traditional broadcast all as a single infrastructure. For some customers, Amagi is starting with one side of the house and then shifting to the other, he said.

Still, FAST is becoming an increasingly prominent part of the business.

“FAST is certainly the fastest growing part of the business, and that is growing larger and larger,” he said. However, Amagi’s aim isn’t an either-or answer. “We see this as a common solution, and not necessarily one or the other.”