Scripps marries FAST, OTA with new Tablo DVR-enabled device

E.W. Scripps this week launched a new device that supports viewing and recording across over-the-air and a selection of free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) channels, in a move that highlights a broader strategy for the broadcaster of marrying OTA and FAST.

The redesigned Tablo device and software – the first since Scripps acquired Canada-based tech manufacturer Nuvyyo in 2022 for $14 million – touts advanced DVR scheduling, with more than 50 hours of onboard storage. The internet-connected device pairs with a TV antenna (that comes with a guided set-up wizard), sending live TV signals to smart devices for broadcast TV viewing, and can be connected to a home Wi-Fi network to watch free streaming channels and apps on smart TVs or streaming devices.

As broadcasters look beyond traditional pay TV, nScreen Media founder and chief analyst Colin Dixon sees Scripps, like some other broadcasters, starting to blur lines between FAST and free OTA broadcast.

“If you look at Scripps business, they are increasingly not differentiating between FASTs and over-the-air, and in particular diginets,” Dixon told StreamTV Insider.

Scripps, which owns 61 local TV stations accessible via OTA, purchased ION in 2021 and owns eight national news and entertainment networks, has worked to capitalize on the rise of FASTs. Per OneTouch Intelligence data, E.W. Scripps is the second top FAST channel producer by distinct FAST channel count, only behind Paramount Global.

Take for example Newsy, which Scripps purchased and rebranded to Scripps News. Dixon noted how in descriptions of its product, Scripps touts reach of its network to 98% of U.S. households both through OTA and FAST – grouping the two categories together. It’s also launched FAST channels such Ion, Grit, Bounce, ION Mystery, Laff, which are distributed on other FAST platforms as well as available via the Tablo device.

Scripps’ own FAST channels on Tablo are joined by free streaming channels from other sources, including Fubo Sports Network, and Tastemade. It expects to add another 20 to 30 channels for Tablo in the next few months, according to a Scripps spokesperson. Apps are accessible on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV/Google TV and iOS mobile platforms, as well as most smart TVs and mobile devices. Apple TV, Samsung and Vizio are expected to be added later this year.

“The positioning of Tablo sort of really fits very closely with the positioning of the company,” Dixon noted. Scripps executives have previously cited a multi-platform distribution strategy as helping to fuel advertising revenue, with the larger environment creating greater opportunities for free TV, both via OTA and connected TV.

As for the device, the nScreen Media analyst thinks Tablo is “a great little box” at a reasonable price (priced at just under $100, with a 35-mile indoor TV antenna included for an extra $10). And he sees the ability to record FAST channels as “a real differentiator.” The Scripps spokesperson said they believe it is the first device to enable the recording of both OTA broadcast and curated FAST channels without the need to pay a subscription cost.

“I love it because it really puts the product where the consumers are,” Dixon said, with viewers in now in both worlds of traditional and free streaming TV.

The Tablo device allows consumers who are very comfortable with the world of traditional TV to get their feet wet in streaming, and potentially cut the cord going forward, according to the analyst.  

“I think it’s good for [Scripps], good for their broadcast properties, and coincidentally I think will help more people walk away from the traditional pay TV bundle,” he commented.  

On Scripps end, it’s also looking to boost consumer adoption and awareness of free OTA TV with an improved experience.

“We are trying to enhance the viewing experience for consumers who are turning to over-the-air TV,” said Bo Schuerman, Scripps vice president of enterprise strategy, told StreamTV Inisder via email. “We want consumers to be able to easily watch live football, local news, free streaming channels and record shows and movies with no subscription fees.”

Complementary free programming

Scripps’ Tablo device also offer a unified programming guide that combines live local networks with a selection of FAST channels, as it looks to offer complementary free programming. 

In its announcement, Scripps said 33% of all content watched on cable during primetime and weekends is available free and OTA, including live sports, primetime and local news, citing Nielsen.

And Dixon noted the nice pairing of FAST and free OTA broadcast programming, where viewers outside of traditional cable still need and could use an antenna to catch local games of major pro leagues like the NFL and MLB on broadcasters' local affiliates of major networks – although premium second tier sports such as NHL or MLS are unavailable.

The analyst said he’s seeing other local broadcasters beginning to join the FAST train, but noted they’re still somewhat limited because they can’t bring the national programming or local games from their affiliate stations of ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC onto those platforms.

That said, “a lot of the local broadcasters now are taking their news and homegrown assets onto FASTs,” Dixon said. “And it's absolutely what you got to do now.”

For example, Fox and Gray Television launched local channels on Vizio’s WatchFree+ service over the summer in 10 markets. And Cox Media Group just launched a free streaming news service called Neighborhood TV, focused on hyper-local news.

Local content continues to draw viewers, as TiVo’s Q4 2022 Video Trends report found nearly a quarter of viewing time is spent watching local content. And when it comes to primary modes of watching that content, free broadcast TV from an antenna accounted for a 10.4% share and FASTs accounted for 6.4%, while traditional pay TV dipped just below 50% for the first time ever as the main source for local content.

Dixon also noted Sinclair, which is a strong believer in the NextGen TV ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, has the free ad-supported service STIRR as well as FAST versions of its most popular diginet brands.  

But as ATSC 3.0 rollouts chug along, he thinks broadcasters could be wise to get further on the FAST train.

What about ATSC 3.0?

As Dixon pointed out in an August 14 blog, the number of people watching live OTA TV, around 33% per Hub Entertainment Research, is about on par with the figures that watch FAST linear (note, not including VOD FAST, which also constitutes a bulk of viewing), based on TiVo survey data. 

Although there are similar numbers, use of OTA has remained relatively flat over the past few years while usage of FASTs surged quickly in the same time, and the promise of ATSC 3.0 doesn’t seem to be boosting OTA.  Part of the reason has to do with Wi-Fi rollouts, Dixon explained, as almost all homes are Wi-Fi equipped and can tune into FASTs fairly instantly as most have connected TVs setup. Comscore’s latest State of Streaming report found 81% of total Wi-Fi homes were streaming on connected TVs as of May 2023. Whereas OTA on the other hand requires an antenna and potentially more leg work, such as installing on a roof or needing to be close to a metropolitan area.  

The continued rollout of ATSC 3.0 is expected to help bring enhanced broadcast experiences and services with better quality, and Dixon noted could encourage OTA to grow a little faster. But that future is still on the horizon.

“It’s tough for ATSC 3.0 Next Gen TV to compete with FASTs because FASTS are here now and we need to wait for ATSC 3 to roll out,” he said.   

TiVo’s survey found 64% of viewer say they watch FAST services, with around half of those opting for live linear content. For percentage of daily viewing time overall, AVOD, FAST and social saw its combined share jump from just above 10% in Q4 2021 to 23.5% in Q4 2022, per TiVo.

For those who said they plan to cut the cord in the next six months, an increasing percentage said they would turn to free ad-supported services and apps (around 15%) or free OTA broadcast (about 12%) as their next choice for live TV – though still significantly behind vMVPDs, which 65% said they’d turn to first.

Notably, the Tablo device does not come with support for ATSC 3.0 –  but a ATSC 1.0 antenna - though Scripps is still looking at that future down the line, as reported by NextTV.

However, taking the Scripps approach with a device that gets viewers comfortable with an improved OTA experience, while also using its assets to lean into FASTs, could help set the stage for when more advanced broadcast services become available. And Dixon thinks Scripps is making a good play by pursuing FAST and marrying the two.

“It’s the smartest play in the market today,” he said. “If you’re already an OTA broadcaster, then playing, getting in FASTs and benefiting from this really steep growth curve that FASTs are on, versus that much slower growth curve of over the air…it’s hands down the best approach to take. Do both.”