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A post by
Andy Bielinski
Q+A SERIES
August 1, 2023

Free Ad Supported Television - Life in the FAST lane

Free Ad Supported Television - Life in the FAST lane

A post by
Andy Bielinski
August 1, 2023
XX
min read

Yes, it's a buzzword but Ostmodern's Principal Consultant Technologist thinks there is a real opportunity to be had.

There’s been a lot of talk about FAST (Free Ad Supported Television) over the past couple of years. At Ostmodern I’ve worked on a number of FAST projects and FAST itself continues to be a headline when it comes to some of the digital products and user experiences that we continue to work on, and their supporting technical architectures. There’s an ample amount of ambiguity as to what exactly FAST encompasses, and therefore the opportunities that it presents for a streaming service. Time, perhaps, to take stock of the situation.

What is FAST?

FAST (Free Ad Supported Television) is a relatively recent, and a somewhat broad term that is concerned with the monetisation of streaming TV using only advertising, thus making it completely free for the end subscriber.

The first point to acknowledge here is that FAST is not actually a technical term that is used with regards to video advertising, unlike VAST, VPAID, MRAID or other such technical specifications. There are no standards bodies that define exactly what is in FAST’s scope and the mechanics of how it must work. By contrast, specifications such as VAST (Video Ad Serving Template) and others, specify the particulars of exactly how a video player must interact with an ad server to display ads – the protocol used to fetch them, how many ads are to be returned, whether they are skippable, if so after how many seconds, where they are placed, how analytics are reported etc. Specifications, such as those set out by the IAB, set out in clear terms precisely what can be achieved by the video player.

The truth is that FAST is a marketing term, it’s not a technical standard. Rather like Web 2.0 was a trending topic at the turn of the last century, FAST is a trending topic now, but at best it merely paints broad brush strokes about what it is. It has a lot of blurred lines. It suggests the use of a lot of well-established (and emerging) technologies. Such ambiguity can be tricky when you want to start building a business model around FAST, but FAST also presents some very intriguing opportunities, too.

Looking at its origins, FAST seems to have first appeared in an article published by media analyst Alan Wolk, which tried to predict trends for 2019. In those predictions, the original FASTS (Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV Services), are services such as the Roku channel and TubiTV.

Since then, FAST has evolved significantly. First we experienced an unprecedented pandemic, which affected the way people consumed their OTT services at home. Now that the lockdowns are over, and the world is opening up again, human consumption of content has changed again. The general economic climate has also affected people’s appetite to spend money.

Add to that the major changes in the advertising industry that are coming, such as the demise of 3rd party data, and you’ve got quite a lot of moving parts to account for when thinking about a FAST business. Subscription fatigue in general is also a contributor to the rise of FAST.

The expectations of FAST are therefore a constantly moving target, and the way that FAST has manifested itself in digital products is something that I’ve seen evolve over the past few years. Wanting to do FAST is one thing. Making it happen in a well thought-through product, underpinned by the right technology, with the right timing, is something else.

Isn’t FAST just a fancy term for AVOD?

It’s fair to say that the two terms sometimes get used interchangeably, but what is of important note is that FAST specifically deals with an ad-only way of monetising streaming TV services. FAST services (by definition) are completely free to the end user. The business model, and the overall success and profitability of a FAST service therefore boils down to ad impressions alone, which is a different proposition to a business model where ad revenue supplements subscription revenue. TV services also largely consist of long form content, suitable for TV viewing. Movies, series, programmes, news and TV coverage of events are fundamentally different to viral short-form clips captured on a smartphone. The ad inventory associated with long form TV services also has a very different economic value than other types of publishers.

AVOD (Advertising Video-On-Demand) generally deals with a much broader set of scenarios, including publishers that use video advertising to monetise short-form content. Short-form content, such as what might be streamed by a newspaper or magazine publisher online, might only last some 30-60 seconds in some cases. Monetising such short form content has its own set of challenges – as an end user, we can sometimes feel a bit short-changed, sitting through a 30 second (typically non-skippable, frequently also non-relevant) preroll, only to then see a fairly underwhelming 30 seconds’ worth of content, followed by another 30 second postroll, with plenty of banner ads littering the page thrown in for good measure. Even though the technical specifications used here might be the exact same ones as in FAST (e.g. VAST 4.x), the UX and the associated technical challenges in monetising such services through advertising and keeping users engaged, are very, very different. The economics are very different, too.

So what does that mean for the relationship between TVOD, SVOD, AVOD and FAST?

More blurring of lines. Here a traditional TVOD/SVOD business harnesses AVOD

One can argue that FAST is a subset of AVOD. The value of the TV content and the inventory of FAST services will be more than certain other publishers. FAST content that is really valuable might then evolve into a hybrid model (e.g. end users paying to remove ads).

The SVOD industry is undergoing its own challenges, driven by The Great Unsubscribe. While SVOD is here to stay, hybrid monetisation models, such as supplementing subscription revenue with advertising, are very much a thing.

One way to visualise the relationship between AVOD, FAST, SVOD and TVOD could be as follows:

How this set of relationships will evolve remains to be seen, but according to industry trends as well as what I see anecdotally on day-to-day projects, there are some interesting pointers that can be observed.

SVOD is clearly here to stay, but it’s continuing to face challenges from “The Great Unsubscribe”. TVOD has been becoming less relevant for a number of years now anyway. AVOD faces uncertainty and disruption in the wake of major changes to the way that 3rd party data can be leveraged by publishers and advertisers, but year-on-year, more money is still being spent in that sector – even if making money from high-volume, short-form content is getting harder. A shrinking SVOD sector and an uncertain AVOD sector is giving rise to hybrid monetisation models. We see this in FAST services such as 4OD, which also offer its users ad-free models in exchange for hard cash. We also see traditional SVOD services such as Amazon Prime’s Freevee offer subscribers certain types of free, ad-sponsored content in conjunction with its traditional subscription service.

This puts FAST in growth mode but what’s also interesting is the interplay that arises between FAST and the growing hybrid monetisation sectors.

This venn diagram envisages what the industry might look like in the coming years

Two truths and a lie about FAST

Let’s consider the assertion that one of the following is not a true statement:

  1. A FAST channel delivers ad-funded live / linear TV content
  2. A FAST service, by its nature, means there’s little one can do with regards to end user behaviour
  3. A FAST service blurs the boundaries between broadcast (linear), live, vod

To help unveil the untruth, it’s worth focussing a little on the subtle yet important differences between a FAST channel and a FAST service. The former lends itself to a “live / linear streaming” experience that is monetised entirely through ads, including scenarios where it is necessary to perform the in-stream replacement of broadcast traditional TV ads with personalised ones from an ad server (the technology for this being mature and well-established). A FAST service, on the other hand, may well include FAST channels but it is going to be somewhat broader. In addition to linear streams, it might also have a substantial catalogue of VOD content that’s entirely ad-funded, or it might include VOD content that is presented to the end user via the UX to make it seem as if it’s being streamed in a linear fashion (e.g. “simulated live” using looping VOD, rather than a real live source). Technologies such as SSAI are likely to be extensively leveraged, including ad personalisation.

It could therefore be suggested that the lie is the second one. FAST certainly seems to extend beyond live / linear TV, but user behaviour is very diverse. Therein lies the opportunity for an innovative digital product.

Isn’t there only so much you can do with a FAST service?

I once worked on a FAST-related project that dealt with the monetisation of long form content through ads by streaming it to set top boxes. Ad placement for such a service was going to be key, as one would naturally look at harnessing pre, mid and post-rolls as the primary methods of advertising. It might seem like a classic balancing act of not being too intrusive whilst getting the most ad revenue that is possible out of the end user’s behaviour. Pre-rolls would naturally be viewed as the most valuable advertisement spaces. Midrolls needed to be carefully placed to take into account minimising intrusiveness, and post-rolls were carefully selected to be as relevant to the content as possible, in order to keep bounce rates low in what is otherwise traditionally viewed as being a less valuable slot.

However, we also considered a companion app on mobile devices. This added a degree of interactivity to an otherwise non-interactive UX via a 10-foot UI. It also presented untapped advertisement opportunities to what would have otherwise been a relatively linear service. It essentially presented new revenue streams in a tasteful and non-intrusive way. Working our way backwards was the key. Placing the user first. Designing a UX to enable the user was the priority, followed by figuring out how best to leverage the underpinning technology to make the desired UX happen.

What are the technologies involved in FAST services?

The core building blocks of any streaming service will include commodities such as media processing and content delivery. Content management systems, and curatorial tools are also required to help organise content and make it discoverable. What’s important to note is that content management systems and any sort of curatorial information is able to provide valuable context that can be used for ad targeting purposes.

An adtech ecosystem will obviously feature heavily in a FAST service. At the very least an ad server, where ad campaigns can be defined, impressions counted and revenue reconciled. Traditional models of publishers negotiating with advertisers over pricing now coexist with more programmatic ways of matching suitable advertisers with suitable inventory, and the world of DSPs and SSPs needs to be carefully navigated to ensure that a publisher’s inventory retains its value, whilst an advertiser’s campaign objectives are met. Digital Marketing Platforms are also going to be important with regards to audience data. Given the inevitable shift away from 3rd party data, identity management systems are also going to be an important consideration for many FAST services going forwards, especially those that look to potentially consider trying subscriptions.

What are the trends?

What’s inevitable, is that content providers and advertisers will soon not be able to leverage 3rd party audience data. This is a gradual process that’s already started, though we now know that Google is set to entirely phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2024, with Chrome being the world’s most popular browser. This will really shake up the advertising industry, so media owners, publishers and their digital products need to prepare for these changes now.

The publishing industry is also seeing trends in the use of AL and ML technologies. ChatGPT is already having an impact on the creation of editorial content.

With regards to FAST, I think that the interplay between FAST and hybrid monetisation models is going to be especially interesting.

At the moment, hybrid monetisation models are very much in their infancy. The streaming services are, for the most part, asking their users to give them recurring hard cash in exchange for stopping the onslaught of ads.

Will that work? And is hard cash going to be the only thing that is of value to trade in a 3rd party cookie-less world? The next 24 months are certainly shaping up to be very interesting indeed!

Conclusion

FAST is indeed a marketing term, but at the same time FAST includes the use of some well-established, as well as emerging technologies. Creating a good digital product that harnesses those technologies in an optimal way is going to be the key to the success of a FAST-based service.

In the ad-funded world, the end user doesn’t pay a penny. Therefore, the end user that uses the product is the product.

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