How to Get Up-to-Speed in the European FAST Market

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Free ad-supported television (FAST) has been a rapidly rising element of the streaming industry since the beginning of the pandemic. As Jason Thibeault noted earlier this year in a Streaming Media article, FAST is not necessarily a new business concept for the industry. However, these free services offer an audience that’s increasingly burdened by inflationary pressures and higher costs of living an ideal option for a wide variety of programming.

But while the FAST sector has soared in the US, it faces distinct challenges in Europe and international markets that have prevented it from reaching equal viewership heights enjoyed in the US.

Where FAST Stands in the US Compared to Europe and Other International Markets

According to Variety, leading European FAST platforms in EU5 markets (France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain) include Rakuten TV, LG, Pluto TV, and Samsung. They offer between 45 and 140 FAST channels each. However, this is still minimal compared to the US market, where, according to Digital TV Europe, there are around 1,500 channels.

Sa Eva Nébié, head of research at Dataxis, says competition from free linear broadcast has inhibited the rate of FAST adoption in Europe to date. “One important difference [between the US and Europe] is the relative strength of free content in Europe, which can represent a tremendous share of viewership in some countries,” Nébié notes. “On average, 30% of European TV households rely on free-to-air (FTA) only for their TV consumption. This means that FAST services are competing with already-existing FTA options, provided on linear broadcast, often completed with broadcaster video on demand (BVOD) offers, and gathering established audiences.”

In the US, by contrast, she says the prevalence of high-cost cable services as the only real alternative for consuming linear TV content has created an opportunity for FAST and made it more appealing by comparison. “The [US] market has been dominated by the pay-TV model for years, and free linear options can create a real difference.”

And it’s not just the number of available channels or viewership size that separates FAST in North America from its European counterpart, according to Nébié; Europe lags far behind in advertising revenues as well (which should come as no surprise given the smaller audiences). “Although more provisioned with FAST content, the European FAST TV landscape remains behind the US and Canada,” she states, “where revenue from FAST channels is expected to reach USD 4.1bn by the end of 2023, around four times higher than revenues collected in Europe.”

This disparity is expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future. By 2028, Statista projects that the US market will reach $9.8 billion, keeping the US firmly in place as the leader of the FAST market by a wide margin.

But one encouraging metric for potential FAST channel launchers is the fact that overall CTV coverage in Europe is rapidly catching up to the US. Ad solutions provider Amagi reports that in Q3 2022, CTV coverage had reached 70%, which runs comparatively close to the 80% coverage reported in the US during the same period.

Why Localisation and Niche Content Are Key Advantages for International FAST Channels

The overall growth of the CTV landscape pre­sents an excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs to launch FAST platforms in other­wise underserved markets, especially in a market far less saturated with existing FAST channels than North America’s. One effective way to leverage this opportunity is through localisation.

As Olivier Jollet, executive vice president and international general manager at Pluto TV, explains, “Before launching any countries, we ensured that our content offering was highly relevant for the local audience. Pluto TV closed strategic partnerships with major local content producers such as Corus Entertainment, Via­play, ZDF Studios, Telefe, and Mediaset. By partnering with local content providers and creators, Pluto TV can easily enter new international markets, combining our global content pipeline with powerful local content.”

Nébié agrees with Jollet on the importance of localising content, and she adds that specialisation in Europe, in particular, offers one advantage for advertisers. “The significant quantity of channels in Europe creates a lot of different options for advertisers to reach the new and very specialised FAST audience online with targeted campaigns and branded channels.”

Original niche programming also repre­sents an exciting option with many possibilities for reaching targeted audiences. “Offering niche content is particularly crucial,” points out Pascal Birot of the TV platforms, OTT, cloud, and content protection solutions provider Viaccess-
Orca. “By doing so, you can create a strong value proposition for your FAST channel, better reach your intended audience, and increase advertising revenues.”

Best Ever Channels

The FAST Channel Launch Quick Checklist

According to Jonathon Barbato, co-CEO of “digital TV synchronisation studio” and FAST channel builder Best Ever Channels, there are immediate baseline factors to consider when developing your idea for a FAST channel and laying the groundwork for a successful launch. He breaks down those factors into three distinct segments:

  • Operations: “Make sure you have a team or partner who is well-versed in the intricacy of FAST channel programming and delivery.”
  • Marketing: “Pick content that can be curated into a brand with unique differentiation from all the content ‘noise’ out there. The more you can access and involve key influencers in your brand category to sense ownership of the brand and spread the word for you, the better. You’ll need this brand leverage to even get launched by the platforms, and you’ll need it to get discovered and viewed by the audience.”
  • Longevity via Dynamic and Niche Content: “Make sure you have enough content and resources to bring in additional content to make it through the long haul. The only thing worse than a channel no one watches is a channel people stopped watching because it got stale. They’ll never come back. You can repeat content blocks in a 24/7 period, but be sure you have enough content breadth to attract and keep regular viewership, and use the usage data to program [your channel to match] who’s watching when.”

Barbato elaborates further on the content question: “Audience tastes and hit programming never really vary that much from platform to platform. The basic formula for success still applies: Action, comedy, music, lifestyle, and sports will always be top performers. Classic programming can work if it’s classic hits. Hits are hits, no matter how many times they play. Equally, a show that failed once will likely fail again and again. The primary viewing of FAST channels is from channel surfers, so the more professionally done the content is, the more movement and eye candy, the more likely it will grab a viewer’s attention and get them to ‘stick’ to your channel.”

Rakuten TV menu

The Rakuten TV menu—plenty of dynamic images, proven IP content, and a variety of classics and originals for a range of demographics is the formula for FAST success

Why Discoverability and Curation Are Essential for FAST Success

Jollet offers insights that mirror Barbato’s in the sense of having a decent content breadth while also maintaining a solid programming game plan. “FAST requires a clear programming strategy and audience target. At Pluto TV, we believe in the power of human curation in a world dominated by algorithms and robots. Our channel editors are not only content experts, but they are fans curating for fans. They are using data daily to improve the programming of every single channel. The Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) plays a big role as well. Our goal at Pluto TV was, from the beginning, to solve the paradox of choice, and the EPG helps the user to find the right channel in a few clicks. Reducing the number of clicks to their favourite channels is key,” he maintains. “It is an interactive EPG, [which is] way more flexible than traditional EPG. It helps to bring something familiar and add innovation to facilitate the discoverability.”

Pluto TV’s electronic programming guide

Pluto TV’s electronic programming guide

Nébié also emphasises that capitalising on the built-in user interfaces of device manufacturers can be an essential first step complement to a channel’s EPG. “The FAST platforms launched by device manufacturers, offering smart TV sets (Samsung, LG) and digital media players (Roku), take advantage of their distribution role to also provide their own content options on their screen or internal OS interface and increase the number of ad products proposed to advertisers/brands,” she says.

Samsung TV Plus electronic programming guide

Core Elements of a Good FAST UX

Ultimately, no matter how compelling your FAST channel discoverability, diverse programming, and targeted advertising may be, what ultimately counts is the seamlessness and quality of presentation for the user experience. When asked how a new FAST channel stands out from other channels in terms of user interface and programming discoverability, Best Ever Channels’ Barbato breaks down all of the core elements into critical components:

  • Use a short, one- or two-syllable name.
  • Choose a clear, bold brand mark that’s easily read, no matter how small.
  • Make unique use of colour and style.
  • Leave minimal imagery or “visual noise” in the background.
  • Wherever content thumbnails are available, use varied and compelling art (also simple, bold, and unique imagery).
  • Be concise in descriptions.
  • Use celebrities or recognisable brands.
  • Whenever possible, close with a cliffhanger.

Launching any new content platform is a challenging proposition in a content consumption landscape that is now saturated on all levels. But if you have a unique idea for a FAST channel and an especially good sense of an underserved audience or a particularly underrepresented market niche, using the FAST model can be the most flexible framework for delivering and monetising your content.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Launching a FAST Channel in 2023?

During the research keynote, State of the Streaming Industry, Spring 2023, from the Streaming Media East 2023 conference, Gustavo Neiva de Medeiros, president of TeleUP, Inc., said, “I think the super easy days of FAST are definitely over. FAST is actually very complex. It’s a bit unfair right now; there are a couple of companies that dominate the market.” He also remarked that any new FAST channel needs “very compelling content” to be competitive.

Even so, Medeiros told the Streaming Media East audience that FAST “is an easy way to get started. It’s not like broadcast or cable.” He noted that one of the most significant present challenges is the large number of intermediaries involved in the advertising pipeline. This issue is often brought up by members of the FAST Alliance, a nonprofit created by TeleUP that assists emerging FAST channels in effectively monetising their advertising revenue. “There’s a lack of transparency of ‘Who are you actually getting an ad from?’ ” he indicated. “ ‘What is happening with that advertising dollar, and why am I getting so little of it?’ ”

But he also affirmed that the increasing number of playout services, such as Tulix, help to make the running of a FAST channel more cost-effective. He said that some people have become discouraged about FAST when looking at recent data and the significant gateways to distribution, such as Roku and Samsung TV Plus. However, newer entrants, such as VIZIO, create more distribution opportunities. “So, I would not be surprised that when you do this survey [of the streaming industry] again, there will be more interest as the market becomes more competitive, especially as FAST is making its way abroad.”

Finally, while there are wider opportunities in Europe and international markets for launching a successful FAST channel, Medeiros echoed other commentators in that the key to success remains having very original programming, maintaining a deep level of understanding of your target audiences, and finding a way to offer this compelling content with an ease of discoverability outside of the dominant Roku and Samsung platforms.

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