Is FAST the future of TV? Here, Emmy-nominated producer Paul Epstein, who has worked on series such as The Apprentice USA and Into the Wild Frontier for networks including NatGeo, Discovery, & MSNBC, argues that it is and it’s much closer than you think.
Change is coming FAST to how consumers across the globe want to view TV. Studios and streamers are taking note – but are they staying far enough ahead of the curve?
We all know about the demise of Peak TV – an era that created the greatest shows ever made yet somehow destroyed the TV industry. Viewers are feeling the aftershocks today: too many providers, apps, subscriptions, and tiers; too much choice of content; too much confusion over how to find and watch the shows they want – and too much cost. On top of paying for internet, we’re all paying for each individual service instead of a bundle of many.
With a bewildering array of acronyms redefining TV as we know it – SVoD, AVoD, CTV, OTT – the last thing we need is another one; but FAST actually stands for something viewers want and need: Free, Ad-Supported Streaming TV. And FAST can pave the way to a more accessible, less expensive TV future.
A typical FAST provider pops up on your TV like most streaming apps you see when you turn it on. But what you get is much different: a TV interface that looks and acts like the classic cable bundle, including a channel guide, search functions, and DVR options. Depending on the service (popular ones include Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Pluto TV) you’ll see familiar cable channels like HGTV and BET alongside news channels like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC.
But these FAST providers go above and beyond with channels dedicated to genre programming (true crime, sci-fi, western, cooking) and sometimes beloved individual shows. And FAST differs from a typical streamer’s offering in two important ways.
First, the “Free” part of Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV means exactly that. No subscription fee, and as a welcome bonus to password-fatigued viewers, no subscription at all. Just turn it on and start surfing channels.
Second, FAST mimics linear TV in a subtle but critical way: scheduling its programming instead of dumping it en masse for viewers to either binge or eventually get around to watching… or not. And I believe that scheduled TV is going to come roaring back. FAST.
Whether or not we fully understood it way back when, linear TV created both anticipation and reward. It seems quaint now but viewers would look forward to specific nights to see that week’s episode of their favourite shows. Viewing major TV events like season or series finales – or even great TV moments like Ross and Rachel’s kiss, the “snakes and rats” speech from Survivor’s first season, Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, or the still-unsettling series finale scene of The Sopranos – made us participants in significant cultural milestones instead of mere watchers.
Streaming doesn’t do that. It nullifies anticipation by making everything always available. Anything you can get around to doing later – like binging 10 episodes of a streaming series – is less important, and in the context of the TV viewing experience, less valuable – than something you must do at an appointed time if you don’t want to miss it.
I miss that. I suspect many other TV viewers do too – far more than studio and streaming execs may realize. The evidence lies in plain view: schedule shows like Succession, The White Lotus or other brilliant shows on HBO created near panic over spoilers. Sure, a legion of fans will eagerly await the next season of Stranger Things or The Crown. But they’ll watch the whole thing more or less at once. And then it’s on to the next one.
FAST services have the potential to turn back the dial. Even if it’s not a season finale of a current hit drama, you’ll still see shows you love on the channel guide – and a specific time to watch them. I predict that as FAST takes over more of the TV market (and it’s already growing exponentially) these services will offer more and better original content, as many already do. It’s only a matter of time before we’re sitting down to see what’s on Tubi tonight as opposed to what’s on Netflix all the time.
So what about the “ad-supported” part of FAST? Don’t consumers hate ads? Didn’t we turn to premium subscriptions to escape them in the first place? Sure, there was a time when the novelty of ad-free TV enticed viewers into subscriptions, but it’s hardly the case anymore: study after study show viewers don’t mind them at all, especially as the “price” of otherwise free TV, and mega-streamers like Netflix wouldn’t offer ad-supported subscription tiers if they didn’t believe viewers would want them – and they do: that Netflix’s ad tier already has millions of paying users and continues to grow.
Other big providers are getting in on the game. Amazon Video’s FreeVee FAST service has 65 million active monthly users. Pluto TV, acquired by Paramount in 2019, had 78 million monthly users in 2022. Badly needed ad-revenue is helping the major studios and streamers survive the cash crunch that helped create the recent WGA strike.
And FAST isn’t just an American thing: recent studies show that 15% of viewers in the UK regularly watch FAST services; the market there is expected to drive $500 million in revenue by 2027. The rest of Europe isn’t far behind. Clearly, the FAST cat is out of the bag.
It’s also overdue. I hope FAST avoids the pitfalls into which Disney, Paramount, Apple TV and the like have fallen (or jumped.) I believe there is a brighter future for TV, and that FAST is poised to lead us there.
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