Vizio's Katherine Pond on the 'art and science' of data-informed FAST programming

Vizio is taking a data-informed approach to its programming strategy. The smart TV maker is leaning on automatic content recognition (ACR) technology paired with other data sources to get granular insights into what’s hitting the mark with consumers across the TV landscape and help guide content choices for its WatchFree+ FAST service.

Vizio’s Inscape ACR data unit Inscape collects glass-level data, meaning it gets information about what’s playing on the screen regardless of the input, be it linear, streaming, HDMI, or other.   

In an interview with Fierce Video, Katherine Pond, Group VP of Platform Content, Partnerships and Programs at Vizio, explained how with that data it’s been able to look at linear to find shows that are really resonating with Vizio customers. It then works with network and studio partners to take some of that programming and bring it to the company’s own WatchFree+ service.

Pond will dive into key topics in the CTV landscape alongside other industry leaders during a roundtable discussion next Tuesday, June 13 at the StreamTV Show in Denver. Register now to attend in-person or tune in via livestream.  

While Vizio device sales have declined over recent quarters, WhatFree+ and Vizio’s SmartCast platform have shown growth, increasing time spent as well as driving advertising revenue as brands continue to pursue CTV.  In the first quarter Vizio saw smart TV shipments drop 32% but ad revenue grew 24% year over year. Vizio generates ad revenue through advertising on FAST channels, sponsorships and home screen opportunities. Its SmartCast platform has around 18 million users and WatchFree+, boasting around 260 linear-style channels and 6,000 on-demand titles, is the number two free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) app on Vizio TVs.

In programming for the FAST, Vizio is aiming for the right mix of licensed, library, and premium content while also leaning into exclusives and tentpole events.

Pond shared an example of leveraging ACR with one particular undisclosed network partner. She said Vizio took a look at the data and informed them of a show that was doing really, really well with Vizio viewers. The network found that interesting, as it wasn’t a title they necessarily thought would be a good fit for a single series IP channel. (Single-series IP channels have found a strong home in the FAST environment, in part providing consumers an easy way to pop in and out of a show they know they like without having to select a specific episode each time, helping to combat choice fatigue, while also monetizing library content).

The network partner decided to give it a go.

“We tried it out together, and not only was it wildly successful on WatchFree+, they also ended up distributing it to a couple of our competitors in the market as well because it was doing so well,” Pond noted.

She said it’s one clear example of how Vizio’s able to use ACR data to understand and have a holistic view of the consumer and what they’re watching across linear and streaming – ultimately leveraging that information to inform Vizio’s strategy for programming on WatchFree+.

Going deeper with ACR

In the world of the FAST space, there are a few categories that have been held up as popular draws for viewers, but Vizio with ACR coupled with other data sets is able to get a little more granular about what’s resonating.

Pond pointed out there’s often talk about a lot of very high-level genres that are hitting the mark (ie: true crime and news).  While that’s true, Pond pointed out that “news has resonated with Americans for hundreds of years.”

“The reality is, this ACR goes so much deeper than us just knowing ‘oh comedy is a top performing genre’ or romance does well in February,” she said. “This ACR data allows us to actually get in and look at…a particular show that’s doing well.”

Then Vizio pairs ACR together with other data sources to get richer insights, she explained, such as knowing comedies with a certain type of talent resonates with audiences. And this information plays into which licensing deals Vizio pursues.

“When my team actually goes out to do our licensing deals with the studios, we look for those exact attributes in the content that we’re trying to pull in.”

And while data is key, there’s still that human touch that applies to programming.

It’s what Pond thinks is probably the crux of every programming team: “How much data from your data scientists or data analysts go into it? I wouldn’t say there’s a magic formula for that.”

To Pond, finding the balance is the beauty of programming.

“It’s the art and the science, it’s looking at all of the data that goes behind it, and then also understanding our audiences as well enough to go, ‘this looks like something else that they really liked”, she continued. “Let’s bring this in and introduce them to something that’s brand new that they haven’t seen before that we really think they’re going to love.”

O&O channels

Of the 260 some channels WatchFree+ has today, 250 are licensed and 10 are programmed by Pond’s team at Vizio (or also known as owned and operated, or O&O channels).  

When it comes to programming its own, “What we do is we look at where there is a great depth and breadth of content that addresses a specific consumer demand in the category,” she explained.

For example, Fork and Flight is one of Vizio’s top performing channels. “It actually outperforms every single other channel in the food and travel category as a whole on the platform,” Pond said. Vizio dives in where it believes it has a library of content that will allow it to program specifically for the Vizio customer, with enough variety of content to continually rotate programming and keep audiences engaged for a longer period of time.

Another example is Vizio Investigation – which fits into that crime genre previously mentioned as doing particularly well on FASTs, as well has Vizio House. According to Pond, every single one of the owned-and-operated channels have grown in terms of usage over the past year, with average session duration increasing on each.

Tied to these focused channels is of course a chance to monetize the content, as the O&O channels can be sponsored by Vizio advertising clients.  

Pond described how in May Vizio launched Valor, a channel specifically aimed around Memorial Day.  Ashley’s Furniture sponsored it, with the aim to align around a content moment, while also finding a way for a brand that isn’t endemic to advertising to be able to have a presence on the Vizio home screen and get in front of consumers.

“Those O&O channels really create a great relationship and a great opportunity for our advertising clients, as well as delivering amazing content to our consumers,” Pond commented.

Vizio’s also leaning into branded content, earlier this year launching a Branded Content Studio. It’s a new unit tasked with creating data and ACR-informed custom programming that brands can more directly integrate messaging within and around.

A forecast from Magna earlier this year projected U.S. advertising revenue to reach $326 billion in 2023, with the AVOD and FAST markets expected to see a 21.2% increase this year.

Exclusives, premium content, on-demand

FASTs also aren’t always known for having exclusive content (not necessarily original but only available on that platform), but it’s one area where Pond said Vizio has really leaned in, particularly through seasonal events.

That was true for its Spring Showcase, where in April the smart TV maker brought in 13 different TV shows and movies that were exclusively available on Vizio.

And consumers like the feeling of something exclusive, Pond said, adding it’s just true of humans in general.

“That opportunity to present unique and exclusive content to them that can’t be accessed anywhere else, that they get as a benefit of their Vizio device, that’s really powerful, it’s really impactful,” she said. “And we find that when we promote those exclusives on our home screen, that they do very, very well with our consumers.”

Pond declined to share specific metrics around how exclusive tentpole events such as the Spring Showcase and an earlier Fall Fest event performed, but did say from a high-level that Vizio’s seen “that we are pulling in new viewers and creating new viewers that may not have engaged with WatchFree Plus before as a result of having those exclusive tentpole events.”

But while exclusives are nice, it doesn’t mean Vizio is only or primarily seeking out exclusive licensing deals – as to Pond it’s all about the blend.

That means having on-demand content that has the right mix of library and premium content, and having a FAST environment that has a strong balance of exclusive titles as well as familiar or comfort shows they’ve long watched and enjoyed.

“Having something familiar to them, like a Law & Order SVU or something like Family Feud that they’ve known for a really like time, that’s going to keep them there and engaged as well,” she said.  

Pond said that Vizio has “really high fill rates on our best channels,” but also believes the FAST environment provides an opportunity for brands to align with premium content.

While FASTs aren’t always thought of first for premium content, more has been migrating to the services.  For example, Warner Bros. Discovery inked deals earlier this year with The Roku Channel and Fox’s Tubi, while Vizio has content from AMC, CNN, NFL and Fox, among others within WatchFree+.

The on-demand element of WatchFree+ is another area where Vizio thinks about how it can get a consumer in to find a specific title that’s relevant to them at that time, with a over 6,000 titles licensed from major studios like Sony, Warner Bros., Lionsgate and others.

“The beauty of the on-demand environment is we have the ability to say, hey, we know that you love this type of movie, let us curate the home screen in a way that’s going to help you find that and bring you into this environment,”

And if someone watches a movie, Pond said Vizio has visibility, not only into the title, but details such as a viewer is always watching romance movies that are less than two hours and has comedic elements. That in turn allows it to serve up recommendations based on that and surface more library-type titles.

“That really allows us to have this nice blend in our library of these major studio titles paired together with library titles that consumers also love, and just giving them that depth of content that it really is more difficult to achieve if all you’re doing is licensing major studio titles,” she noted.

Vizio also doesn’t keep its ACR data to itself, licensing it to others, such as partners like iSpot, to help build out currency-grade data sets. And Pond thinks it’s a philosophy that sets Vizio apart from others in the industry in its relation to ACR data, saying “the only way you can push the industry forward is by making the data available to the people that need it to do their jobs.”