Scheduling, curation key for FAST differentiation

DENVER – This year’s StreamTV Show kicked off with a discussion surrounding the evolution of free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) and how distributors can differentiate their FAST channels.

One way FAST is changing, according to Stefan Van Engen, SVP of content programming and partnerships at Xumo, is that it’s no longer just “a bucket of stuff” channels.

“We’re moving away from the ‘bucket of stuff’ channels to well-programmed, well-thought-out schedules and channels that can keep an audience,” he said at a panel Monday.

Xumo for instance just had its third annual game show week, Van Engen went on to say, and that’s a way to both showcase events and help viewers, especially those who have cut the cord.

“What we’re trying to combat is that idea that just because it’s free, ad-supported and you don’t pay the monthly bill for it, you don’t want people saying there [are] thousands of channels and nothing on,” he said.

Scheduling FAST channels is a key issue for content providers, said Rob Gambino, head of advertising and personalization strategy at Harmonic. He explained a lot of Harmonic’s customers don’t have “big knowledgeable scheduling teams,” so the company has zeroed in on AI to improve scheduling and personalization.

“AI might not necessarily know the whys of why viewers watch some particular thing, but it would feed a bunch of data in about what your viewers are doing,” Gambino said.

Not only can AI generate a channel schedule based on viewing habits, it can also get a sense of what a service’s ad load should look like – whether an app is showing too many ads or too few ads.

“Rather than having a person kind of look at data and try to guess what viewers are interested in or what they might do, you’ve got this computer algorithm that’s going to be better than a human is in an equal amount of time,” he added.

Part of what goes into scheduling content is ensuring it aligns with trending events and holidays. Jordan Warkol, VP of business development at OTTera, noted just a couple of years ago, content providers tried to “add as many [channels] as they could” to get in front of users.

But now, what’s important is to analyze the content and “how you’re actually incorporating your data and your viewership into your next month’s schedule.”

“[What’s] really important is looking at a standard calendar year and how you can fit your content into those tentpoles…it’s how you can fit in something for spring or summer or Christmas or Halloween – whatever it is,” Warkol said.

“Being able to schedule and strategize ahead of time and incorporate that when presenting your channel, is a way to be able to cut out distribution, especially now that it’s more competitive,” he added.”

Vizio’s WatchFree+ is one FAST service that’s regularly producing seasonal content. In April, WatchFree+ rolled out its Spring Showcase featuring curated content like home improvement, reality shows and documentaries. The Spring Showcase followed Vizio’s Fall Fest, which launched last October as WatchFree+’s first programming event.

Liz Buhn, Vizio’s VP of platform and content marketing, said Vizio is differentiating its FAST content by focusing on “experience, curation and events.”

“We’re doing a lot of storytelling on our home screen with our unique units and carousels,” she said, referring to an updated UI the company unveiled at NewFronts.

As for why Vizio is standing up WatchFree+ events like Spring Showcase, Buhn merely pointed to the abundance of content that’s available on the platform.

“We have to create this sense of urgency and relevancy for our viewer,” to ensure they keep coming back to WatchFree+, she said. Also, Vizio has stood up owned and operated curated channels centered around genres such as food, travel, true crime, among others.

“We’re doing that because we find that this bingeable format of bringing in ‘like-genre’ content into one channel is performing very well,” Buhn added. “It’s essentially at the top of our charts right now for viewership.”