FAST Channels Fueling Broadcasting’s Evolution

Ensuring the flow of local and on-brand content is only one of the challenges FAST channels present — innovation to aid in discoverability remains critical, experts advise.

LAS VEGAS — FAST channels are serving up opportunities, driving new partnerships, and helping broadcasters prepare for success with NextGen TV.

Ensuring the flow of local and on-brand content is only one of the challenges FAST channels present — innovation to aid in discoverability remains critical, industry experts said during the “FAST Channels and the Evolution of Broadcasting” panel at TVNewsCheck’s Programming Everywhere event on April 16 of the NAB Show.

While station groups have access to a lot of local content, sometimes partnerships make sense.

Marian Pittman, Cox Media Group’s EVP for content, product and innovation, said the company has started partnering with “other like-minded companies” like Scripps and has stretched resources as part of its strategy to access fresh content.

“We’ve built a mini FAST channel, sometimes with just a handshake,” she said. “Sometimes you have to figure out how to do a lot with nothing.”

Sarah Katt, SVP for programming at The Hill, said they are bringing political content together from Hill newsrooms, local stations and other assets into a national ecosystem.


But no matter where the content comes from, she said, establishing — and meeting — expectations is important for retaining viewers.

“Get that brand recognition so that what you see on the FAST channel matches what you expect for that brand,” she said.

Scott Ehrlich, chief innovation officer and head of corporate strategy at Sinclair Broadcast Group, said it’s important to understand the FAST audience and what they want. For local, he said, a lot of that will be local offerings.

“How do you differentiate on FAST from what you’re doing on broadcast? Broadcast still pays the bills. It’s going to for a while,” he said. “Just do the math.”

How broadcasters look at FAST channels has evolved over the last few years.

“Buy-in isn’t particularly hard now,” Ehrlich said. “A few years ago, it was a different conversation.”

Part of that is due to the performance of FAST channels. As such, the “arguments that came from a point of fear are no longer there” and the focus now is more about the growth opportunities for the business, he said.

FAST provides a space for experimentation.

“In the FAST environment, we can push boundaries,” which creates the opportunity to give a whole new audience what they want, Shawn Makhijhani, SVP of business development and strategy at NBCUniversal Stations & NBC Spot On, said.

Frequency CEO Blair Harrison said FAST channels bring internet dynamics to the creation process, allowing broadcasters to experiment iteratively. “It’s a huge propellant for the way this industry is evolving.”

What broadcasters are learning from their FAST channels, they can apply to their ATSC 3.0 strategy.

“It’s not a big leap from what we see with FAST today to NextGen tomorrow,” Ehrlich said.

Makhijhani said that because “3.0 combines the internet with broadcast for the first time,” broadcasters need to be ready to apply their FAST channel and DAI learnings as they develop their ATSC 3.0 strategies. “We’re going to double down on what we do best, and use the benefits we get from ATSC 3.0 to push that out.”

Station groups that have been innovating with FAST channels will be better prepared for ATSC 3.0, he added. “When the switch is turned on, we’re ready to go,” Makhijhani said. “That’s the gift that FAST is giving us.”

But the explosion in the number of channels means it can be difficult for content to be discovered.

“Content discovery is the nightmare we never talk about,” Ehrlich said. “Platforms have more content than they have effective discovery mechanisms.”

Takashi Nakano, senior director of business development and content acquisitions at Samsung TV Plus, said the company has redesigned its electronic program guide (EPG).

“Everything we’re doing is how do we make it easier for the user to find what they’re looking for or stumble onto it,” he said. “We think it’s flywheel content” and that the more content a user watches through the EPG, the more likely they are to jump into an AVOD experience. But, he said, “The EPG cannot be the only place where users find content.”

Makhijhani said: “It’s interesting that we’ve come back to the EPG has returned, but it can’t be everything for everybody.”

Harrison said searching through an EPG is a “delicate balance” of a television that can be turned on and return immediately to the most recently played channel, which he said Samsung’s TV Plus now does, and the ability to move through an “infinite amount of content” to find what the user wants to watch.

“A lot of innovation is needed,” Harrison said.

So are proper metadata and clear content descriptions. Ehrlich said granularity with metadata makes content discovery better and therefore a longer shelf life.

Some Cox stations have as many as five streams, and the EPG helps viewers find those streams.

“We take that EPG very seriously,” Pittman said. “The description is very critical.”

Nakano said broadcasters “spend so much time making the video and audio so perfect, but the metadata is often forgotten, and that’s the crux of how people find your content.”

Read more from Programming Everywhere here.

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