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Could Free Ad-Supported Streaming Replace Broadcast TV?

Stephen Silver

The rise of free, ad-supported television (FAST) has been an increasingly important story in the streaming world in recent years. With FAST channels, streaming services offer a traditional, linear viewing experience, without the cost of a live TV streaming service. Often capitalizing on nostalgic and niche content that can’t be found anywhere else in the streaming video-on-demand, FAST channels have become a major driver of user acquisition for ad-supported streamers like Tubi, Pluto, the Roku Channel, and others.

But could FAST one day replace broadcast television? That was a topic of discussion at an industry conference last week. At last week’s, StreamTV Show panel, a number of executives said that they could see FAST eventually surpassing the traditional television model.

“What you see right now that is holding broadcast up is sports and news,” Ashley Hovey, director of ad-supported video-on-demand at The Roku Channel said on the panel according to a Fierce Video report. “I think a lot of the other type of viewings, like scripted, have definitely gone down. There’s the question of, do sports need to go over to actually make [broadcast channels] go away?”

Taylor Sibbern, VP of business development at Tubi, agreed that the TV world seems to be moving that way, primarily because of where and how it is possible find viewers. And as more and more consumers move from pay-TV subscriptions to free and lower-cost ad-supported options, this allows the streamers to engage more substantially with advertisers.

“A lot of our audience is unreachable on cable, about three-quarters,” Sibbern said. “So we’re seeing a lot of traditional TV advertising coming over … advertisers will follow the eyeballs and CTV is much more of a ‘lean back’ experience,” the executive said.

Despite the increase in advertising attention on free streamers, many of the larger traditional broadcasters in the space are hesitant to move their most valuable assets over to their FAST platforms. However, Fox announced earlier this spring that it will make all of this year’s World Cup matches available on-demand on Fox-owned Tubi following their live broadcast on the company’s broadcast and cable networks.

Despite the move, Fox has long said that it has “no plans” to make its most prominent sports property, the NFL, available on its free streamer. Chief Executive Officer Lachlan Murdoch said on a 2021 earnings call that the company was “very mindful of the exclusive value of live NFL on broadcast television, and we’re very mindful of the value that attributes to our O&Os (owned-and-operated stations) and our affiliates.”

Tubi does have an NFL channel, but it includes highlights, past episodes of “Hard Knocks,” and other programming that is not live games. In May, The Athletic, reported that Fox was “content to rely on the declining but still-profitable cable bundle… and on its highly popular sports portfolio that includes the NFL, MLB, college football, NASCAR, and the World Cup,” and speculated Fox could eventually be sold.

The new TV deals agreed to between the NFL and its broadcast partners last year put regular-season games on several streaming services, including Thursday night games on Amazon Prime Video, local Sunday afternoon games on Paramount+, and Sunday night games on Peacock — the latter two as part of the broadcast deals with CBS and NBC. Some, but not all, “Monday Night Football” games have been streamed on ESPN+. But all of those services require a subscription.

While FAST is certainly gaining steam — with or without sports — on the StreamTV Show panel last week, there was also some skepticism voiced as some think of FAST as more complementary of, rather than a replacement for, the broadcast experience.

“It’s on us to differentiate those experiences, make sure we’re balancing where our content lives, how we’re watching shows, how we’re advertising,” Will Gurman, VP of global partnerships and content strategy at Paramount Streaming said, per the report. “Our goal is to keep these business models together and intact.”

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