FAST channel growth explodes, but for how long?

In the past few years, the number of free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) services has risen while FAST channels have grown rapidly. This week multiple FAST services announced content additions and expanded channel counts. But the question arises, with the growth in FAST channels, has the market become too saturated? And are large channel counts recreating a challenging viewing environment where consumers have untold options to scroll through?

StreamTV Insider (STV) asked industry analysts to weigh in on the growth of FAST, where they expect a push towards quality alongside more personalization to help with discovery. Before getting to that, here are some recent developments that showcase FAST channel expansions.

  • Samsung TV Plus’ U.S. FAST channel count reached more than 350, including the addition of a dedicated pickleball channel.
  •  Vizio’s WatchFree+ service tally expanded to more than 300 after adding new content, including 11 channels from Warner Bros. Discovery and six from Lionsgate.
  • Paramount Global’s Pluto TV inked a FAST programming deal with NBCUniversal that added 14 new channels to the platform.
  • Amazon’s Freevee added 18 new channels from Fox, bringing its total to more than 400.
  • Dish’s Sling Freestream brought on new music video FAST channels from Vevo, with a channel count that grew from 150 in 2023 to now more than 500.

And that’s just this week alone.

The FAST Gold Rush

Putting some figures to FAST channel growth, a recent report from Samsung Ads found that as of November 2023 there were over 1,900 individual FAST channels in the U.S., reflecting a 214% surge versus November 2020.

“The universe of FAST channels has become quite chaotic,” Michael Grebb, One Touch Intelligence SVP and lead analyst, told STV.

According to the firm’s latest StreamTRAK audit, there were 1,830 distinct FAST channels from the major U.S. providers it tracks.

“That’s a lot of content for consumers to sift through even as content discovery starts to improve,” Grebb commented. “For many, it’s still a random, channel-surfing experience.”

As to what’s behind the growth, analyst Brett Sappington, founder of Sappington Media, noted consumer trends and content providers’ desire to monetize.

“The increased consumer acceptance and use of FAST channels, and the services that rely on them, has driven a gold rush among content owners and rights holders,” he told STV. “Many are rolling out new channels, hoping to squeeze additional revenues out of the assets of their content libraries.”

A shift to premium, survival of the fittest

With a sea of FAST channels available, not all are bound to swim and analysts think services will discard less popular channels in favor of more premium content.

In terms of saturation, Sappington noted that several streaming services he’s talked with have mentioned “a massive and growing supply of FAST channels.” Because of that, he said many FASTs have become more selective about which new channels they’re incorporating into lineups.

“An increasing number are now optimizing their lineups, dropping low performing FAST channels and adding new, promising options,” Sappington commented. “We are seeing more premium content in FAST channels, which will likely continue to push the low performers out of the FAST channel guide.”

Programming and content executives from FAST services Samsung TV Plus and Pluto TV shared similar sentiments in earlier interviews with STV, each indicating they won’t keep underperforming content on the platform or allow it to take up space in the electronic programming guide (EPG), respectively.

However, despite a plethora of channels, One Touch Intelligence audits of FAST services still find “copious amounts of ‘unfilled’ time” even among major FAST channel aggregators, according to Grebb. So-called “unfilled time” usually amounts to “We’ll be right back” messages or even blank screens.

Grebb believes this issue will improve as higher-quality programming makes its way onto FASTs and large content owners demand a better consumer experience.

Over time, he suggested the 80-20 rule will apply, “with a minority of FAST channels offering a premium experience that includes less unfilled time and ad repetition while the majority will live in the wild west, fighting for the remaining programmatic ad crumbs and offering a less polished product.”

And while there might be an abundance of FAST channels out there, services are attracting viewers – and with it, the potential for advertising dollars. In Nielsen’s The Gauge monthly snapshot of total TV time in the U.S. last December, three FAST services were tracked, including Fox’s Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Pluto. Tubi garnered a 1.4% share of U.S. TV time that month, outpacing SVOD services Max, Peacock, and Paramount+. FAST services from smart TV OEMs have also marked growth. Samsung TV Plus last fall disclosed growing global viewership 60% year over year, while Vizio on Tuesday said WatchFree+ viewing hours doubled in the past 12 months.

For smart TV companies in particular, there appears to be good reason to keep investing in FAST content, with opportunity for viewing data and ad revenue.

According to Grebb, smart TV makers, particularly LG, Samsung and Vizio “have a big advantage” thanks to heavy investments in their navigation environments, which can also reach viewers before many competitors as the TVOS is the first thing people see when they turn on the TV and presents a chance to automatically engage the consumer.

“It’s clear that these companies view a deep bench of FAST channels as an extremely sticky consumer lure,” Grebb said, noting, however, that at some point adding more FAST channels will become superfluous. “But there will be a survival of the fittest, with many FAST channels now available just going away or getting absorbed by other ones.”   

Sappington, meanwhile, expects total aggregate viewing hours for FAST channels to continue to grow, short-to-medium term as they gain more consumer awareness and quality of the content improves.

“More eyeballs will drive better content, which will drive greater awareness and use – a virtuous cycle that will continue to boost growth in the sector,” he said.

And while investing in more premium content may make sense, endlessly adding to the channel count likely doesn’t.

In a blog post on FAST growth, nScreen Media analyst Colin Dixon said the rapid expansion of FAST content won’t continue this year, as more channels don’t equal more viewing.

“In cable TV’s heyday, it didn’t matter how many channels a viewer could access; they watched about 17 a month. With channel discovery tools in FAST services no better than with cable, the behavior is liable to be very similar,” wrote Dixon. “And if adding more channels doesn’t increase viewing, there is no reason to do it.”

Better discovery, personalization on the horizon

With hundreds of channels across a variety of services, analysts acknowledged discovery is a challenge for consumers but expressed optimism for FASTs.  

One factor is many FASTs don’t require sign-ups or logins – something that can both be attractive to viewers looking for an easy lean-back TV experience and make personalization more difficult.

“The next frontier is probably better discovery, so FAST is less of channel-surfing experience and more served up on a platter,” Grebb said.

FASTs also are implementing mechanisms to make large channel counts more manageable and drive signups.

For example, Pluto undertook a category revamp for easier navigation and Amazon has put focus on curating thematic categories on Fire TV Channels, while Samsung TV Plus expects to evolve to a more “360-degree content consumption mechanism” that could involve meshing linear and on-demand viewing. And what’s likely an effort to encourage users to make profiles, Sling TV in January added access to 10 hours of free DVR storage for all new Freestream users who create a login or account.

Sappington thinks discovery challenges in the FAST space will be solved.

“The technology is available,” he commented. “It will simply be a matter of implementation, consistent metadata requirements for FAST channels by streaming services, and incentives for users to create profiles.”