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Are Premium, Linear Channels the Future of Streaming? Could Services Monetize a Channel-Flipping Experience?

David Satin

At The Streamable, we’ve done plenty of reporting on the proliferation of free, ad-supported TV (FAST) services. With seemingly every streaming service launching or considering launching a FAST channel (or a bundle of FAST channels), there’s reason to believe that the industry is entering a Golden Age of ad-supported streaming.

There are numbers to back up that assertion, as well; 60% of households in the U.S. are signed up for at least one FAST channel, and FASTs are the quickest-growing tier of streaming options. Add to that the fact that FAST services are usually near-instant revenue generators for their owners, and it is easy to see why FAST channels are spreading so quickly across the streaming landscape.

But some in the industry are already looking ahead at how ad-supported streaming can evolve. Services like Netflix and Disney+ will be launching ad-supported tiers of their previously premium streaming platforms within the next few months, but that’s hardly an innovation. After all, streaming services like Peacock launched with an ad-supported tier already integrated into their service.

So what’s the future of ad-supported streaming look like? According to reporting from Variety, to see that future one must look to the PAST(s). “PAST” is a term invented by Variety to refer to premium ad-supported streaming channels; linear viewing options inside subscription-based streamers.

The idea behind PAST channels is to set up dedicated streams for high-demand content as part of SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) services. This would give consumers a familiar linear option to watch services’ exclusive content while also giving platforms opportunities for additional ad revenue. discovery+ is already using a version of this strategy with single show channels for long-running series like “90 Day Fiancé,” “House Hunters” and more. The only difference is that Warner Bros. Discovery has not yet included advertising on these channels, which seems very out-of-character for CEO David Zaslav and his team.

Platforms with deep archives of long-running shows — especially unscripted series or programs that aren’t serial in nature — are the ideal fit for this type of offerings, so that viewers could come in and out without having to worry about catching up. This has long been the philosophy of cable networks running reruns in syndication; viewers can turn on the channel and watch something that they know they will like, without it having to be appointment television.

While the laid-back approach of long-running series can work, some services might choose this format as a way to introduce its ongoing series to viewers who might otherwise not be familiar with it. As content discovery becomes increasingly important in keeping customers subscribed to services, giving viewers more ways to engage with — and ideally become interested in — high-profile programs is key. For example, Paramount would have an excellent opportunity to do so with shows from its premium networks, like “Yellowjackets,” which currently airs on Showtime.

Warner Bros. Discovery is in the midst of putting together a FAST service to launch after it merges HBO Max and discovery+. After all the recent emphasis the company has put on its premium content being an important source of revenue, it’s a good bet that WBD will use PAST channels as well.

However, not all companies will be quick to embrace the PAST model, as they have future innovations already mapped out. The Walt Disney Company, for example, has teased a few details regarding its next steps for Disney+. While those steps do include an ad-supported tier, there have been no discussions regarding potential FAST or PAST offerings on Disney+. Instead, the company is leaning into what it calls “Next-Gen Storytelling,” a streaming experience augmented by virtual reality.

That level of innovation will not be available to many companies who don’t have a theme park revenue stream as Disney does, so FASTs and PASTs may be the most logical step forward for them. PASTs replicate the channel surfing experience that most customers grew up with while removing the need to hunt for titles, which should keep these new programming options at the forefront of discussions on how to continue growing streaming revenues.

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