FAST momentum revs in 2022

The past year has seen free ad-supported streaming (FAST) TV make waves as consumers, media companies and smart TV makers paid increased attention to the growing streaming format throughout 2022. 

December research from Parks Associates shows that around one-third of U.S. households are already using at least one ad-supported service (including subscription AVOD options), with the firm projecting the number to reach 52 million in 2027, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.7%.

Deloitte, meanwhile, expects the introduction of AVOD tiers from major SVOD players by the end of 2023 – followed by more FAST action. By the end of 2024, Deloitte expects half of those SVOD players will have likely also launched a FAST. And by 2030 the firm anticipates most online video service subscriptions will be partially or wholly ad funded.

Media companies like NBCUniversal and Paramount Global are already in the space offering premium SVOD services (Peacock and Paramount+) as well as FASTs (the free version of Peacock and Pluto TV), while e-commerce giant Amazon has Prime Video and Freevee.

And while firms are expecting growth for FASTs in the coming years, the free streaming TV services, which don’t necessarily require subscriptions or signups, also saw momentum in 2022 as the ecosystem continued to evolve.  

According to survey data from Hub Entertainment Research, in Q4 2022 65% of consumers said they use at least one FAST service such as Pluto TV, the free version of Peacock, The Roku Channel, Fox’s Tubi TV, or Comcast’s Xumo, among others. It marks a 10-percentage-point gain over Q2 2021.

FAST services often offer a linear-style viewing experience with programming guides for channels typically dedicated to specific and niche genres or single-series, as well as on-demand content.

Smart TV makers put FAST in focus

Major smart TV makers LG, Samsung and Vizio marked progress on their respective FASTs this year - LG Channels, Samsung TV Plus and WatchFree+.

Samsung in August promised to double down on investment in Samsung TV Plus, which saw a revamped logo design and stronger emphasis on premium content partners such as  A+E Networks and The E.W. Scripps Company.

Vizio, meanwhile, refreshed its FAST user experience with a more intuitive programming guide and also nabbed $200 million in Upfront commitments from advertisers in 2022, inclusive of its WatchFree+ service  – which Adam Bergman, group VP of Advertising and Data Sales at Vizio indicated was a big draw for buyers.

“WatchFree+ is the crown jewel as one of our most compelling and important assets where advertisers see unique and distinct value," Bergman told Fierce in October.

LG also worked to build up its content roster, such as adding a collection of channels from FilmRise and content from Estrella Media, including a Spanish-language news and entertainment channel. In December LG announced a partnership with Majordomo Media to produce exclusive original cooking-focused content for the FAST platform.

That move could bode well for viewership as Recent Hub Entertainment Research indicated original and exclusive content could help drive continued gains in FAST usage. According to Hub data, 47% of current FAST users and 30% of non-users say they’d be more likely to use a FAST service if they heard it was producing original, exclusive content.

News becomes a bigger draw for FASTs, single-series IP finds a home

2022 also saw FAST services start to enhance their offerings with local news coverage. The Roku Channel had a notable year in that regard, bringing local news from NBCUniversal and Telemundo.

Smaller players like VUit followed a similar trend, as the free streaming service added 13 local CBS news channels to its lineup. NBCU itself incorporated local news affiliates on Peacock, but notably only for subscribers to its premium tier offering, similar to what Paramount has done on Paramount+. Samsung TV Plus, meanwhile, added Dateline and NBC News Now, among others.

Single-series IP also found a home on FASTs in 2022, with numerous FAST channels dedicated to specific series launching across platforms. For example, Pluto TV, which has over 68 million monthly active users, brought on new genres such as game shows and unscripted TV, launching FAST channels for Let’s Make a Deal, The Judge Judy Channel, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy! to name a few.

The Roku Channel inked a deal in November with AMC Networks to launch 11 FAST channels, including one exclusive to the platform that features hit series like “Mad Men.“ Over the course of 2022 The Roku Channel was a top five channel on Roku’s platform in the U.S., both by active account reach and streaming hour engagement, for three consecutive quarters. In Q3 it saw streaming hours grow more than 90% year over year.

As for single-series channels TVREV analyst and co-founder Alan Wolk told Fierce in October, media companies are using FASTs as a way to utilize large content libraries, while single-series channels also help alleviate some of the content choice fatigue for consumers by delivering a way to easily tune into shows with many episodes without having to pick a specific title every time.

Speaking at NAPTE event in September Vizio’s director of content acquisition, Greg Barnard, noted that single-show linear channels help viewers familiarize themselves with AVOD and FAST.

“We’re essentially trying to generate a new behavior in the consumer,” he said during a panel session. “FAST is new, AVOD on a streaming platform is new. What a single series IP channel does is it generates that behavior more seamlessly.”

Viewers can turn on that channel and immediately know what to expect, Barnard continued, “so it’s a lot easier to engage with.”

Media companies eye FAST moves

Major media companies also saw traction with their FAST services, with some looking to the platforms as a way to promote viewers to their more premium subscription offerings while also driving advertising revenue.

Fox’s Tubi TV hit 200 live linear channels in October, and marked distribution in Canada via Shaw TV as well as expanded distribution in the U.S. on Verizon Fios. In the third quarter of 2022 Fox saw Tubi ad revenue grow nearly 30% year over year driven by increases in total viewing time on the platform, which reached 1.3 billion hours. Fox’s Lachlan Murdoch said during the Q3 earnings call that the quarter marked the first time Tubi revenue surpassed that generated by Fox Entertainment in a meaningful way.

Paramount’s Pluto TV, meanwhile, plotted international expansion during 2022, with the FAST service now live in more than 35 countries. Pluto also saw its popularity climb in the U.S.this year. In September, Pluto was the first FAST to break out of the ‘other’ streaming category by reaching the 1% share threshold for total TV viewing time in the U.S. that month, according to Nielsen’s The Gauge.

One major media and SVOD that doesn’t yet have a FAST is Warner Bros. Discovery, but the company started to make some moves in the space. This fall WBD launched a MotorTrend channel – its first entertainment-focused FAST channel – on Samsung TV Plus. And while much attention might be on the upcoming combo of a merged HBO Max and Discovery+ subscription streaming service, WBD has said it expects to follow with the launch its own FAST.

Content on a FAST from WBD would be distinct from the premium programming on the upcoming combined SVOD service, according to WBD’s JB Perrette.

“With over 100,000 titles or episodes across our combined portfolio there’s a lot of content that wouldn’t necessarily make sense in a premium product that might make sense in a FAST,” Perrett said in August.

2022 also saw some changes for one existing FASTs. NBCU parent and pay TV provider Comcast in November announced a name change for Xumo, rebranding it to Xumo Play. The former Xumo moniker is now the name of a joint venture with Charter, as the partners work on a streaming platform and hardware that’s expected to debut next year.

Independent apps, smaller publishers and virtual MVPDs were also in the FAST mix in 2022.

Live TV streaming service Fubo TV – which offers a skinnier linear lineup more akin to a traditional cable package – earlier in the year disclosed plans to increase the number of FAST channels on its service, targeting 100 by year-end. It ended Q3 with 60 FAST channels, including a slate of lifestyle-focused channels from Cinedigm, and Trusted Media Brands, among others.

Speaking to the rationale behind bringing FAST content that can be found freely to a paid platform, Fubo TV CEO David Gandler explained it was about breadth of options for consumers alongside a personalized experience on Fubo’s platform.

“So for instance, if you’re watching a design show on Bravo or on HGTV. If we surface a design show from a FAST channel, I don’t think a customer will care where that particular piece of programming comes from,” Gandler said in November. I think what's important in this case is that the customer understands that we're actually providing an amazing service. The ability to give people all of the content in one place effectively, efficiently with a solid user experience,” he explained.

Increasing viewership on FAST channels also allows Fubo TV to create better leverage for itself as it negotiates to renew entertainment deals, he said.

Other FAST players such as Allen Media Group’s Local Now also bolstered content, including from Crackle Plus and Hearst Television.

And as consumers' interest in tuning into free ad-supported streaming doesn't appear to be waning, FASTs could be poised to rev further in 2023.