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What’s Old Is New Again In Fast-Changing FAST Video Sector

What worked two years ago in linear streaming services is now already out of date compared to fast-evolving and stiff competition. More weirdly perhaps, successful free, ad-supported services (FAST for short) are dipping into a very old playbook to optimize the audience experience and keep viewers coming back.

“What would pass muster for a digital linear or FAST channel a year ago does not today,” said Chris Yates, GM of On Demand for Redbox Entertainment, which has three branded FAST channels. Yates was one of five top streaming executives on a panel I moderated recently at OTT.X Fall Summit. “What’s really, really sophisticated now or six months ago won’t be six months from now.”

FAST services look a lot like the familiar TV viewing experience of the past couple of decades, featuring easy access to a wide array of familiar shows and movies, usually chopped up into tightly focused linear channels. Unlike their subscription cousins, there’s no signup, no password, no on-demand, and very few obstacles to audiences coming or going, the panelists said.

“I don’t want to spend 45 minutes poking around in the Netflix UI, I just want to go into something nice to watch,” said Comcast-owned Xumo CEO Colin Petrie-Norris. “The companies that do well recognize that mode that the audience is in: ’Just give me something really good. Tell me a story for 35 minutes, 55 minutes.’ And that’s where I think those traditional techniques work really, really well. And you get a lot of great data.”

That puts a premium on tactics designed to keep the audience sticking around when they want low-stress, lean-back shows that maybe don’t require much attention or investment. Increasingly, those retention tactics look like they’re ripped from the playbook of TV’s grandaddy of them all, traditional broadcast.

“The one thing that we have learned is the tried-and-true techniques for programming that worked on broadcast are working in FAST linear: It’s stacking, stripping, lead-ins, promos,” said Cinedigm Chief Strategy Officer Erick Opeka. “When we started doing that, we saw our audience jump 40 percent in 90 days.”

Cinedigm operates and distributes a large swathe of FAST channels of its own and on behalf of partners. To optimize those operations, the company “hired up a team of people that work in broadcast and set them loose into the FAST universe,” Opeka said. “And let’s just say they were ripping their hair out for about a quarter going, ‘What the heck are you guys thinking and doing?’ and then they started putting that same discipline that you see in broadcast into the mix.”

The resulting growth, now, is particularly important because competition has ramped up seemingly everywhere. Opeka called the sector “a gladiator pit where only the strong will survive.” Other panelists were less colorful but equally reflective of the tough competition and mounting expectations of audiences, advertisers and, particularly compared to the relatively genteel days of cable’s heyday, distribution partners.

“In cable, you got five years to find an audience,” Opeka said. “The cable companies (were) taking 5 percent of (ad) inventory and paying you for the channel. Today, there’s no carriage fees, sometimes they’re taking up to 50 percent of the ad revenue. And if your channel doesn’t perform, you don’t have five years, you have six months, or you’re out. So you really have to figure it out fast. There’s no time to ease into it.”

Even a company such as Jukin Media – a long-time licensor of viral user-generated clips that pop up seemingly everywhere across social media, traditional outlets and the new streaming services – is relying on broadcast tactics to succeed in linear streaming.

“We’re certainly doing everything everyone here is talking about,” said CEO Jon Skogmo, whose 11-year-old company recently was bought by Trusted Media Brands. “First, we test (the clips) on social, and we get really great feedback, and then it’s ‘How can we expand that into a 22(-minute) format? How do we expand that into a 44(-minute) format, into licensing content?’”

Figuring out ways to short funny clips into a half-hour- or hour-long streamed show has paid off in a big way, with far higher audience engagement, Skogmo said

“Our average watch time on socials is about 15 seconds,” Skogmo said. “Our average watch time on streaming is 60 minutes.” 

The next challenge for all the services is better integrating FAST operations with the ad-supported, transactional and subscription VOD services they’re also operating. One approach is to use the FAST services as “barker channels” cross-promoting deeper dives elsewhere in the corporate family.

“There is an increase in incremental opportunity to then send them to the VOD offering,” said Crackle Plus President Philippe Guelton.”It’s a great marketing platform, because, frankly, it doesn’t cost anything for people to discover content in the lean-back experience, and then say, ‘Wait, I could watch the whole series, or I could watch more of that just by clicking right there and downloading the full experience.”  

As old becomes new, or newly useful again, Opeka said companies need to think about how they can pull from a broad range of approaches to keep up in a business that assuredly will continuing evolving quickly in the next months and years.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes that we always do in this industry is look to the past for what’s going to come to the future,’ Opeka said. “But the same mistake can be said for forgetting the past and thinking,’That was broadcast TV, this is FAST.’ It’s a behavior that users are doing. They’re doing the same behavior.”