FAST panel: We’re in early innings, but not too early to make some calls to the bullpen for help

DENVER—The notion of TV that’s free to watch because advertisers underwrote it dates back to black-and-white broadcasting, but in the streaming universe FAST is new enough to look more like a pencil sketch than a finished concept.

A panel at the StreamTV Show here Tuesday, “The Televisioning of FASTS: From Programming to Monetization,” unpacked how the concept needs to be colored in.

Colin Dixon, chief analyst and founder of nScreenMedia, opened the 40-minute discussion by asking how far the concept had evolved.

“I would say we are super early,” replied Dave Bernath, VP of sales and partnerships for the Americas at Wurl. Citing a general lack of real-world familiarity with the concept and “nascent” audiences, he turned to a baseball analogy: “top of the first?”

Stefanie Zuroff, director of business development and content partnerships at Samsung TV Plus, concurred that it was “definitely very early,” with major content owners still coming into the space.

Laura Florence, SVP and GM of digital at Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, compared FAST’s status to her start in cable TV working on lifestyle channels. “It's the same content being monetized,” she said. “Now it's rebuilding the model.”

Michael Senzon, president of digital, Allen Media Group (AMG), took a longer view, pointing to such decades-old streaming predecessors as Mark Cuban’s audio startup “It's more like we're in the second or third inning,” he said.

But the panelists agreed that FAST needs to make some calls to the bullpen, metaphorically speaking, to deal with core problems.

Discoverability came up early on, as the expanding universe of FAST options outstrips the ability of onscreen interfaces to surface them all.

“Discoverability is a real challenge,” said Bernath. “It's definitely gotta go to some new places.”

Zuroff said Samsung aspires to make the home screens of its TVs a daily habit, starting with things like checking the weather—"we want to be someone's home”—but that connecting viewers to long-tail content can’t require them “having to sort through 500 channels.”

Advertising, too, needs to adapt to fill this expanding universe of content instead of leaving viewers looking at placeholders or repeats.

As Bernath said: “No one wants to see a slate.”

Florence concurred in that complaint. “It ends up being the same house ad across 200 channels,” she said. “These generic solutions are just losing opportunities.”

Zuroff added later: “There's a lot of breakage that happens.”

Customization and personalization through software may address both the discoverability and advertising issues, panelists agreed.

“We're just lazy people” Senzon said of discoverability. “We need to make it so simple, and again that comes in the form of personalization.”

He also said AMG is working to boost engagement by using AI to detect patterns of interest and find the people willing to watch 20% more video.

“Can AI say, here's this pool of people that have this user journey?” he said. “We're making moves to try to get there.”

Wurl, meanwhile, recently launched ContentDiscovery, a machine learning-powered platform to help connect viewers to content and advertisers to viewers. But Bernarth said the industry as a whole has a lot of work to do: “The ecosystem is still very immature.”

Dixon noted that too much personalization and customization could conflict with the mass-market imperatives of advertising, calling that “a tension point in the ecosystem.”

The panelists didn’t have a solid answer to that, with some later observing that FAST content providers already struggle to field advertiser requests for the pop-up channels that have become a growing part of the FAST playbook.

“We're talking still about a year in advance planning,” said Florence. “My holiday is done.”

After Dixon invited panelists to speculate what they might discuss in a 2025 version of this panel, Bernath pointed to sports.

“It's the last category to come,” he said. “Eventually, absolutely.”

“We're seeing the RSN world somewhat implode,” Zuroff added. But although the recent collapse of Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Group points to how live sports will need some new sort of market  ecosystem beyond traditional linear bundles, that transition is not only in its early innings but may not have gotten past the first three outs.