The History of FAST Channels

The future of entertainment might look like traditional television but it’s entirely free and streaming now. 

History of FAST channels on Smart TVs example.

By Josh Terry | March 27, 2024

One of the fastest-growing sectors in entertainment looks a whole lot like linear television. FAST channels are a form of Free Ad-Supported Streaming Television (get it?) and they offer all the convenience of streaming with the ambient pleasures of classic television.

With nearly 2000 channels operating in the United States on major platforms like Roku, Samsung TV, Plex, Pluto TV, Amazon Freevee, and dozens more, it’s the closest thing you can get to having cable without actually paying for it. You can flip through individual live channels and all you have to do is watch some ads.

It’s estimated that one in three Americans regularly watch a FAST provider and that FAST will eclipse subscription-based streaming service’s dominance by 2030.

With that in mind, let’s try to understand how we arrived at this moment, where FAST channels migh3t go next, and how that might influence your content business decisions.

How the OTT landscape paved the way for FAST channels

Technological advancement and industry changes over the past century slowly but surely allowed the consumer to be in charge of what they want to watch. In 1984, when the cable industry was deregulated, more niche channels entered the marketplace allowing audiences to consume more niche content like sports on ESPN, news on CNN, movies on HBO, and music videos on MTV. During the 1990s other new products like satellite TV and DVR allowed audiences to consume on-demand content conveniently outside the bounds of traditional television. With more options than ever, audiences can choose where the industry goes.

Having audiences primed for content tailored to their needs was only bolstered by the advent of high-speed internet, smart phones, and smart TVs. Seeing a vast potential userbase, companies like Netflix switched from a DVD-subscription service to an entirely digital streaming-based business model. By signing up for their Over-The-Top (OTT) service, audiences could experience Netflix’s vast content catalog as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted. These services bypassed traditional cable and satellite platforms by directly offering their service to consumers via the internet.

Alongside Netflix, the OTT revolution was pioneered by HBO Go (now called Max), Amazon’s Prime Video, Hulu (owned by Disney), ESPN+, Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, and more. That said, cord-cutting and paid subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services can’t capture the entire market. More budget-conscious consumers want an alternative where they need to sign up for a new subscription or have a cable contract: they want individualized niche content that’s convenient, 24/7, and totally free. Of the OTT marketplace, FAST channels fill this void.

Related article: Understanding the OTT Boom: A Closer Look at the Streaming Market’s Growth and Future Outlook

When did FAST channels become popular?

In 2018, as streaming giants like Netflix spent $13 billion on new original content, FAST channels like Pluto TV, Roku Channel, and Tubi saw unprecedented growth. These free, ad-supported television channels had a vast library of old content—including popular movies and shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s. As bigger names in the industry invested in the new, these services found an audience for old things. They even proved to be one of the year’s success stories, a popular and cheaper alternative to cord-cutting and pricey subscription fees.

By early 2019, Viacom/Paramount acquired Pluto TV for $340 million, which then boasted 12 million active monthly users. In 2020, Fox bought Tubi TV and infused the platform with its gargantuan catalog of films, television shows, and other content.  From 2017 to 2019, The Roku Channel grew its catalog from 1,000 free movies and TV episodes to 10,000. The company hit over $1 billion in revenue that year. Through offering both FAST channels and ad-supproted video on demand (AVOD) options, these platforms were able to deliver free content to millions.

What does the future hold for FAST channels?

Since 2020, FAST channels have both exploded in popularity and in number. Four years ago, there were a little over 400 FAST channels operating in the United State. Now, that number is at 1995 and counting. In the first quarter of 2023, Pluto TV announced it reached more than 80 million monthly users. Tubi boasted 74 million active monthly users in 2023, bolstered by its library of 200,000 movies and TV episodes and nearly 250 FAST Channels. These numbers rival the biggest players in both streaming and cable. The Roku Channel surpassed 100 billion streaming hours in 2023 alongside 80 million active users. With all this growth, what’s next?

The biggest names in entertainment have all entered the FAST channel space: Paramount’s Pluto TV, Fox’s Tubi, Amazon’s Freevee, NBC Universal, and dozens more. As the industry grows, so does the opportunity for more niche content and single IP channel offerings like The Bob Ross Channel and branded music channels like VEVO. There are also underserved audiences. For instance, only 2% of FAST channels are targeted towards 45 million Black Americans. If FAST Channels will continue to grow, the ways it will manifest is through serving the needs of consumers who have been largely ignored through cable and subscription-based streaming.

What does all of this mean for you?

The first lesson any content business can take from the rise of FAST channels? There’s an audience for everything. Find out what they like and give to them. Give them A LOT of it. In today’s connected world, the only thing limiting audience size is the amount of room we have on the earth. Once you find something that connects, you’re going to have huge demand on your hands. Which brings us to our next point…

Make your content as accessible as possible. Break down every barrier between you and any pair of eyeballs that might watch your show. Get your content on every platform, at every time of day, and make it accessible to every possible member of your audience.

Oh hey, wouldn’t you know it? Matchpoint helped translate the Joy of Painting into Spanish 40 years after it debuted on American Public Television. Find out more in Bob Ross Inc. customer story.

Finally, with all that reach your content is going to have – and with all the other channels you will be competing with – your brand is more important than ever before. Present a coherent, attention-worthy brand across all platforms and channels so that your audience can find you in a crowded field of content. Oh hey, Matchpoint can help you with that too

Let’s Talk

If you are a content business owner and are looking to find your own audience in this exciting and thriving marketplace. Hit us up to chat about how we can help you enter the fold, license new material to supplement the content you already own, and deliver this content to people worldwide.

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