April 26, 2023

A lookback at NAB 2023: Is FAST the new face of broadcasting?

By Kjeld Bejier, Head of Product Marketing

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show is over for another year, it’s 100th year in fact. It’s amazing to reflect on how far broadcasting has come in those 100 years. What on earth would the broadcasters of those early days make of this year’s hot topics like FAST, AI, personalized streaming, low latency and 8K? You might as well be speaking about jet packs and hoverboards! 

But for all that’s new and different from even 10 or 15 years ago (never mind 100!), I was struck by how the fact that content and user experience remain the key concern for the many NAB delegates I met over my days at the show. Here are a few more reflections on what we learned from NAB 2023: 

FAST, but not too FAST

A few years ago, we were told that VOD would be the death of broadcast. Today, there are plenty of people confidently declaring that Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV (FAST) channels will be the death of broadcast. Not so FAST! The mood I heard at the show was that FAST is big and getting bigger, but it’s not going to eradicate linear TV any time soon - there’s too much money and credibility in live sports rights for that to happen, no matter how much is invested in resilience and reducing the latency of live streams. 

That fact was underlined even as NAB was in full swing, by the disastrous Netflix “live” reunion show for the reality series “Love Is Blind”, which ended up being anything but live. As Time Magazine put it: “To risk stating the obvious: linear television manages to pull off live broadcasts on a daily basis…In fact, there’s evidence that sports and other live events are the last things keeping many potential cord-cutters from switching to streaming.” 

So, yes, there was a huge amount of buzz around FAST at NAB, and also at MIPTV, the content showcase and marketplace that was happening simultaneously in Cannes. And yes, FAST channels are enormously interesting to many content owners and operators. We launched our own new solution for traditional and virtual broadcasters just a few days before NAB, showing how 24i makes it easy to go direct to consumer with a flexible blend of linear channels, FAST and AVOD to maximize the reach of your content without relying solely on Pay TV operators and FAST marketplaces as your distribution method.  It’s called 24i Broadcaster Studio and you can find out more about it here. We also recently announced our partnership and first joint customer with one of the biggest players in the FAST space, Amagi.  

There was a lot of interest at NAB in both of these announcements. The content owners we spoke to are highly focused on finding new ways for the public to consume their content. That was the same whether we were talking to long-established broadcasters with linear channels and extensive back catalogues of VOD, or to those who have come to the market with FAST-only services and rely on partners like Samsung, LG, Roku and Amazon to distribute their channels. 

It makes sense. Compared to a regular broadcast channel, FAST is a cheap and quick way to test the market for a new thematic channel or niche service. Even the Public Service Broadcasters walking the halls at NAB  were looking to get in on the action alongside their traditional channels. It’s a great way to surface all that long-tail content in their libraries. 

But there are also challenges to consider with FAST. There’s the issue of live events and sports that I’ve already touched on. Equally, the vast majority of today’s FAST channels are not using DRM. That’s fine if you’re using FAST to cheaply and quickly monetize a large volume of lower value content. As bigger brands step into the FAST arena, I’m uncertain it will stay that way. Higher value content brings a higher CPM, but also requires higher security. We could soon find ourselves in a situation where FAST channels will be segmented into those with and those without DRM - and perhaps some channels that are a mix of both. That’s fine if your streaming player is DRM agnostic (as ours are) but for some services it’s going to be a challenge. 

The FAST lane to personalization

While we’re talking about a huge range of channels that offer a mix of secured and unsecured channels, is this all starting to sound strangely familiar? Strangely like…cable TV? One of the reasons cited for “cord-cutting” pay TV services is that consumers aren’t willing to pay for hundreds of channels they don’t watch. So our new, modern solution is to provide…hundreds more channels via streaming? Of course, the difference here is that FAST is free to the consumer and they’re not paying for those channels they don’t watch. But as the FAST offering grows, it becomes increasingly hard for services to be found and heard above all that noise. That’s where personalization comes in. 

Personalization of streaming services has been gathering steam for a number of years and continued to attract a lot of attention at the show this year - especially as SVOD services realize how much they need it to tackle rising levels of subscriber churn. 

It was great to meet so many longstanding and new customers and partners and to talk in detail with them about how personalization and advanced analytics can tackle their key challenges - not only by reducing churn, but also improving engagement, increasing the CPM for their AVOD content, and reaching the widest-possible audience with the content they’ve invested in. 

In fact, while NAB was taking place, famed “media cartographer” Evan Shapiro presented a keynote at MIPTV where he advocated for the industry to reshape the way it thinks about how television is consumed and distributed. He strongly emphasized that the value of TV is going to be driven by engagement and love of personalized content — not simply by reach.

So, how can personalization help to tackle the growing content discovery issues with FAST? One option is to use data on an individual viewer’s preferences to direct them to something that’s already being "broadcast" as a multicast stream on a FAST channel. So when your current reality TV show ends, you’re switched to another one that also suits your taste and is just getting started elsewhere. This is an intriguing way to use recommendations in a multicast environment, but is it really personalization? I don’t think so. Isn’t it more like an EPG with automated recommendations? VOD may not have been the death of broadcast, but it’s made us all aware that “on-demand” is an attractive prospect. 

As with the DRM question above, the multicast approach to virtual channels may appeal to smaller niche streaming services. But as larger broadcasters test the FAST waters, are they going to want to give up control of what is shown before and after their flagship content? Are they going to be happy to see it mingled into a single stream with that of their competitors? I doubt it. We’ll have to wait and learn, like with so many new developments in this fast-evolving industry. That’s what makes it so interesting! 

A truly personalized FAST experience takes a user’s known viewing preferences (and possibly their input on how much time they’ve got available to watch right now) and uses machine learning to generate a truly personalized playlist of recommended content that picks from a content owner’s entire back catalogue. This needs to be stitched together as a one-off, unicast, virtual channel with dynamic server-side ads. The result is a fully customized, lean-back viewing experience per user. Crucially, this won’t force content owners into putting their video side-by-side with that of their biggest rivals if they don’t want to. This kind of virtual channel is perfectly possible with a flexible personalization and recommendations solution like the 24iQ platform. We think it’s going to be a game-changer. 

What’s next for video streaming? 

It’s inevitable that as NAB ends, we all turn our sights to what’s next. And for most people in our industry that means buying tickets to 24i’s home town of Amsterdam for IBC in September. So, what will we all be talking about at the RAI this year? If the buzz at NAB is to be believed, we’ll still be very much focused on FAST. But we’ll also be hearing how AI is transforming the industry. 

We’ve been talking up the benefits of AI and machine learning in streaming for quite some time now because they’re a central part of 24iQ. But you can also expect to hear more and more about the use of these methods in the development process, to speed up the creation and evolution of video streaming apps and the backend technologies that power them. It will be interesting to see whether this particular passion for AI is here to stay, or just another passing buzzword - a few years ago IBC and NAB were all about 3D and VR but there was surprisingly little of those technologies on show in Las Vegas this year! 

What do you think? Will FAST replace broadcast in our lifetimes? Is AI going to revolutionize app development? If you’d like to talk about the topics covered in this blog, why not schedule a call with me or one of our expert team? 

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