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FAST platforms are on the rise. How can they keep up the momentum?

A sprinter runs across the progress bar of a connected TV past the boundaries of the screen.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Shutterstock / The Current

In 2023, during the fourth quarter of Fox’s Super Bowl telecast, Tubi — the free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) service owned by Fox — launched a clever 15-second ad spot that caused viewers to frantically check their remotes. The ad made it seem as if someone was changing the channel during the climax of the Big Game. Whatever anxiety was caused by the “Interface Interruption” ad, it certainly put the spotlight on Tubi.

Since then, the FAST space has only been on the rise. Nielsen said in a recent report that Tubi and The Roku Channel, another FAST platform, both saw “significant year-over-year growth” in TV usage in the U.S., with the former up 43% and the latter up 36% from May 2023.

Nielsen also recently said that time spent on Tubi grew 5% in May from the previous month, accounting for a platform-best 1.8% of streaming viewership in the U.S. in May. Both Tubi and The Roku Channel were ahead of subscription video platforms Max, Peacock and Paramount+ in that regard. Tubi, The Roku Channel and Paramount-owned Pluto TV accounted for a combined 4.1% share of TV usage for the month.

Zooming out, FAST has been gaining momentum as subscription-based streamers like Netflix and Disney+ introduced advertising-supported plans. Users still have to pay for a subscription to those, albeit cheaper than the ad-free versions, while FAST platforms are free to use.

“People only have so much appetite for subscriptions, so FAST will continue to grow until people have completely moved from linear to streaming,” says Dave Dembowski, SVP of global sales at Operative.

But while FAST has quickly found footing over the last year, experts The Current spoke with expect big changes in the year to come.

The draw of FAST

The Current reported last year that Tubi — which expanded to the U.K. last week — had 64 million monthly active users (MAUs), up from 25 million three years prior; Pluto TV rose from 12 million MAUs in 2019 to 80 million last year.

Those numbers still pale in comparison to subscription-video-on-demand services like Netflix, which has 270 million subscribers worldwide. But it shows that momentum had been steady in the FAST space in recent years, which sends a strong signal to advertisers. As the TV industry becomes more and more fragmented, engagement is key.

“We used to live in a world of omniculture, where everybody is focused on the same thing at the same time, and that still holds true for certain things,” Tubi Chief Content Officer Adam Lewinson told The Current last year. “Beyond that, viewership is just so fractionalized, which really just speaks to the individuality of each viewer.”

Some FAST platforms have been experimenting in original content. Roku, for instance, bought the Quibi library in 2021 and The Spiderwick Chronicles, which originated for Disney+, is now a Roku Original. But as Dembowski says, “content creation is expensive.”

Instead, for the most part, FAST platforms focus on brand- or genre-specific channels of licensed content. If someone wants to watch anime all day, they can do so on the Crunchyroll channel on Pluto TV for free.

In that sense, the FAST phenomenon caters to younger demographics who “prefer quick, on-demand content” that they get for free on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, says Mike Seiman, CEO and founder of Digital Remedy.

PadSquad’s Head of Client Strategy and Marketing Lance Wolder concurred, saying that FAST channels are similar to YouTube Shorts: “Algorithmically served, bite-sized entertainment that captures attention without demanding commitment.”

“FAST platforms are like a buffet of entertainment,” Wolder says. “They have doubled down on niche content, creating low-friction, snackable content that viewers can jump in and out of.”

But the biggest potential on FAST platforms when it comes to content could be — what else? — sports.

The future of FAST

In May, The Roku Channel began streaming Sunday morning Major League Baseball games as part of a new deal, the first of its kind for a FAST platform and a major sports league. Now pro baseball could reach what Roku says is 120 million people each week in an free online ad-supported environment.

“These experiences not only bring in big audiences, they bring in big advertisers,” Dembowski says of live sports, which are increasingly shifting to streaming.

The Current reported in May that the Roku–MLB agreement could be the first of more opportunities to come for live sports in the FAST space.

“The larger the audience opportunity, the higher the chance to find new customers and drive lower-funnel performance,” Katina Papas Wachter, Roku’s head of integrated brand partnerships, said at the time. “Being able to measure this impact will be one of the many benefits of this partnership.”

Beyond the potential for sports, though, some experts say there is plenty of room for evolution in the FAST space.

Seiman, the Digital Remedy CEO, says that to grow further, FAST platforms should be doubling down on the younger demos he alluded to, “by focusing on the types of content these demographics enjoy, including shorter formats, influencer-driven content and reality podcasts.”

Among advertisers, Wolder says there is still a “perception challenge” for the FAST services compared to premium-video streamers: “Many buyers and brand managers view these channels as less premium in content quality and audience profile.”

“The industry needs to reshape its view of FAST inventory and ad opportunities. Developing new, engaging, and unique ad experiences and sponsorships is one potential bridge to changing this conversation.”

He adds that FAST platforms don’t necessarily need to compete with premium-content subscription services.

“The future of FAST isn’t about competing with premium content,” Wolder says. “It’s about becoming the go-to destination for passionate niche audiences and having the proper channels for each viewer.”