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By Chris Drake

Make FAST better faster.

That seemed to be on everybody’s wish list last week at the Stream TV Show.

OTT providers casting a wary eye on the challenging economic environment recognize that Free Ad-Supported Television can help them simplify viewing for audiences awash in an ocean of options. What’s equally clear is that FAST ­as currently executed will soon give way to a smarter generation that fully leverages data and analytics to maximize engagement and retention.

Here’s the background: With both economic inflation and subscription fatigue taxing subscribers’ OTT loyalties, FAST’s virtual linear channels have been on the rise. Last year, Variety VIP reported that the number of FAST channels in the United States had risen 81%, from 550 in July of 2020 to 1,000 a year later; the industry is expected to reach more than 216 million monthly active users by next year, with total ad revenues of $4.1 billion.

In FAST’s continuous streams of ad-supported content, OTT providers see multiple virtues, including the ability to: provide consumers with new viewing options even as tighter wallets are prompting declines in subscriptions; ease subscriber frustration at navigating a paralyzing mix of OTT content; and deliver advertising revenue and promotion that can reach more deeply into content libraries.

The BUT! – isn’t there always a “but?” – is that many FAST technology providers have the playout part down cold but lack the next-level of personalization that can increase the value of virtual linear channels. At Stream TV, Sinclair’s Scott Ehrlich, Allen Media Group’s Michael Senzon, and CBS News’ Wendy McMahon all spoke about the importance of local within their business roadmaps. It was clear that the industry is seeking an agile, dynamic solution that can cater to a growing and increasingly diverse audience by combining targeting and personalization capabilities with the power of local.

What’s needed is to combine the FAST opportunity with the power of data. Paul Pastor’s blog earlier this week – after Firstlight Media was named a Google Cloud Industry Solution Partner of the Year for Media & Entertainment ­– referenced our NAB announcement of collaboration with Google Cloud to hasten the arrival of the next generation of FAST. What we’re bringing to market are powerful data and monetization capabilities to:

Increase the relevance of and engagement with vLinear channels by fine-tuning content curation in real time;

Enable better decision making by FAST providers as to what content can best drive ad revenue and top-of-funnel viewership; and

Enable exponential expansion of the FAST universe by micro-targeting viewers’ specific interests and creating channels geared to them.

The resurgence of linear – in the form of FAST channels – has been one of the hottest stories in the industry over the past 18 months, but moving beyond one-size-fits-all is crucial to optimizing the value of vLinear to the industry. Curating a Pluto TV or Roku Channel that addresses my specific interests will keep me coming back for more.

To the industry that was calling for just that at Stream TV last week: No sweat; we’re already getting it done. Reach out to me at chris.drake@firstlight.ai for a sneak preview of what’s next for FAST.