What We Love (and Hate) About Free Streaming in 2023

It’s time for an emergency discussion about our “no-commitment relationship” with FAST. Photo: Amazon Freevee

There was more bad news for legacy TV networks this week: For the first time since Nielsen started measuring streaming ratings, broadcast and cable viewership in July accounted for less than 50 percent of total small-screen usage. But while audiences may be fleeing the linear ecosystems, they’re absolutely not abandoning the kind of lean-back content found on traditional services. Instead, a good chunk of that viewing has quickly migrated over to free, ad-supported streaming television services such as Tubi, Pluto TV, and the Roku Channel.

FAST platforms, as they’re known within the TV industry, are shaping up to be the spiritual successors to old-school networks. Like broadcast TV, they’re completely free (beyond the cost of an internet hookup); like cable, they offer hundreds of channels devoted to various niches and interests. And viewers are eating them up: This week, Nielsen also reported that, combined, the three aforementioned FAST platforms accounted for 3.4 percent of all the TV usage last month, collectively outdrawing the viewership of Disney+ (2 percent), Max (1.4 percent), Peacock (1.1 percent) or Paramount+ (one percent). Add in free services not broken out in Nielsen’s survey — such as Amazon’s Freevee, NBCUniversal-owned Xumo Play, and device-specific platforms on Samsung and Vizio — and it’s clear that, as Buffering reported almost two years ago (and a few times since), FAST is becoming a significant force in the streaming universe. It’s also becoming increasingly important to studios looking to reduce the massive debt loads they’ve incurred while building up their subscription platforms: The red-hot market for advertising inventory on free streamers could generate in excess of $6 billion globally, by some accounts, with the vast majority of that money spent here in the U.S.

But while there’s a lot to love about FAST — for execs and viewers — as with any (relatively) new medium, there are also challenges. The race to get into the free space has resulted in a proliferation of new FAST channels, and as we saw during the SVOD wars, you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. And after originally offering viewers the opportunity to watch far fewer commercials per hour than regular TV, free streamers are jamming more and more ad availabilities into shows and movies. Despite these issues, all signs point to FAST continuing its explosive growth trajectory over the next few years, particularly as big price hikes by paid streamers send some audiences scrambling for alternatives. For this week’s Buffering, I assembled three of my colleagues who cover streaming TV (and audio) for Vulture to discuss the state of the FAST union in 2023. Podcast critic Nicholas Quah (whose just-published deep dive into the world of Alone is a must-read), Streamliner editor Eric Vilas-Boas, and associate editor Savannah Salazar joined me on Slack to hash out the big issues facing the space right now, including the possibility that Netflix and Disney might soon join the free streaming battle. We also share what shows and movies are in our current FAST rotations.

Joe Adalian: First, thanks again for doing this. So for our purposes, FAST is going to cover two kinds of free, ad-supported streaming television: stuff you watch on-demand for free and linearlike “live” channels, which serve up free programming — with ads — in a scheduled format. So with that out of the way, here’s my first question: Which FAST platform do you tend to use most? And why?

Nicholas Quah: I’m a big Pluto TV guy, but not for any particularly good reason. It was the very first FAST service I heard about, from someone I was interviewing, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. I’ve tried some Freevee before, but that’s mostly for Jury Duty, and I’ve plumbed through the Roku Channel when I was researching the ashes of Quibi, but other than that, it’s all Pluto TV. I haven’t even given any of the others much thought, frankly.

J.A.: Guess some of those other platforms need to work on marketing!

Savannah Salazar: I definitely use Pluto TV the most too. It’s the best-looking interface of them all, which I vastly appreciate. It makes surfing through their great library easy, and who else has a channel dedicated to The Drew Barrymore Show? Like, c’mon! Although, on the flip side, I do have Freevee as a close second. Despite it having a terrible, nondistinctive interface, it’s also located within Prime Video. And it has Bewitched, at least the first three seasons, so that’s a win for me. I did also binge Mad Men on there when it wasn’t streaming anywhere else. I’ve tried browsing through other FAST platforms (like the Roku Channel), but bad design is a turnoff for me a lot of the time.

The Pluto TV interface, which guides the user between live and on-demand viewing. Photo: Pluto TV

J.A.: For me, it’s probably Freevee, only because — like you said, Savannah — they are connected to Prime Video, which means their stuff pops up even when I don’t open the Freevee app. Plus, they’re now the only place with on-demand access to The Rockford Files (which Peacock stupidly dropped even though NBCUniversal owns the show!), and they have a very deep library of legit classic TV across the different studios. That said, I am also a big Tubi fan because it has the weirdest collection of older TV and movies out there, and I love the simplicity and ease of use of their on-demand interface. It makes it relatively easy to find stuff.

Eric Vilas-Boas: I wouldn’t say I use one go-to for FAST over any of the others versus just Googling which ones have a given movie or show I’m interested in and then falling into a deep hole of, say, the old Mission: Impossible show on Pluto. Because I’m not paying, I don’t have a ton of loyalty to them ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

J.A.: Eric, it sounds more like you’re still pretty intentional about your FAST usage. In other words, you seek out shows, not platforms, and just end up going to the ones that have what you want.

E.V.B.: Definitely. It also depends on my attention span at any given time. I watch RetroCrush (I’m an anime fan), and I’ve got the live feed going in the background RIGHT NOW.

J.A.: So is it correct to say you all use FAST more for lean-back, linear-style viewing versus just free on-demand?

N.Q.: Yeah, pretty much. My affinity for Pluto TV is purely grounded in the pleasure of a no-commitment relationship. Even the act of choosing something to watch on-demand, whether it’s on any of the FAST services or paid streaming, evokes a paralyzing fear of opportunity costs on my end. The entire use case for me is pulling up a channel that’s vaguely interesting and leaving it on in the background while I’m doing something else. I don’t know 99 percent of the movies or television shows, but I love having them on. It’s companionship, really.

E.V.B.: It’s delightful! Martian Successor Nadesico is on RetroCrush right now. I’ve seen it before, but I love being able to dip in like you’re saying, Nick.

J.A.: What’s interesting is that Tubi, Freevee, and Roku have all added live channels because of Pluto’s success and because they think that’s what older audiences want: something that reminds them of cable. But all of you are under 40, and you clearly still like to lean back into a cable experience.

N.Q.: Too much choice is a horrible thing. Give me freedom from my bad decisions.

S.S.: It also makes everything easier! I remember having to go through my dad’s cable account to find out how to watch certain morning shows, and it was so confusing. I am just a Zillennial craving the experience of watching a daytime show, but not from YouTube clips.

E.V.B.: It’s good to sample things without guilt. No optimizing, no Googling “best episodes to watch.” One advantage this category has is that all these apps feel like they’re available on practically every platform, and sometimes the live channels have deals with, say, Tubi and Pluto and the Roku Channel simultaneously. If you don’t like the design of one, you might catch the same channel or a similar one on another.

J.A.: Pluto tries to bridge the gulf between linear and on-demand by offering a prompt sometimes: “Hey, this show you’re watching ‘live’? We have more eps on-demand. Would you like to watch one?” Have you actually ever used that feature?

N.Q.: Oh, yeah, I get the prompt sometimes and my thought is always, LEAVE ME ALONE, DAD.

500 FAST Channels and Nothing Good On?

J.A.: Does anyone else think FAST platforms with a linear interface have gotten a lot more … bloated? Every studio and rights holder is racing to get into FAST linear, and the result is that some of these channel feeds go on forever. There are so many channels now that I have a sense of decision fatigue similar to the kind I get with SVOD. Am I alone in this?

E.V.B.: I feel like each FAST service has hundreds of channels, a fraction of them enticing! But that also feels like cable: 500 channels and nothing good on.

S.S.: Honestly, I’ve just accepted that there are just too many choices with everything.

N.Q.: Yeah, the overabundance is an issue, but it’s not a new one given the existing spread of DirecTV and the like. I tend to gravitate to the overtly curated channels, i.e., whatever has the Pluto branding — authored newness, which is nice.

J.A.: Right. And I think that speaks to the need for curation. I see the appeal of single-show channels, especially ones with huge libraries of hundreds or even thousands of episodes. But shouldn’t FAST channels try to emulate cable and create the digital equivalents of networks? You know, places where 15-to-20 shows stream at the same time every day or week? There are branded and themed channels on FAST, but none that feel like the destinations of the glory days of cable. Why not the streaming version of TBS, USA, TNT, A&E, Lifetime, etc.?

E.V.B.: This is what no channel seems to have. I want a general entertainment channel I can rely on and maybe even schedule around. I appreciate the “Featured” label, even as a starting point.

S.S.: Me too, Eric. I love a Featured or Popular label more than genre-specific ones a lot of the time.

E.V.B.: My wife and I still watch Jeopardy! every night on linear/local TV. If it aired new episodes on a FAST channel, any FAST channel, we’d absolutely be on that instead of our antenna or YouTube TV.

N.Q.: More cablelike channels is an interesting idea, but that suggests more intentionality with the service on my part. At no point in the day am I thinking about the Pluto schedule nor do I have any desire to plan around it. I’d rather have pure randomness. But I acknowledge I’m likely peculiar in this regard.

E.V.B.: Would you do that if the content was more compelling?

N.Q.: If the content was worth it … I’d play it on-demand.

E.V.B.: Fair, fair.

FAST Gets Original

J.A.: That feels like a good segue to talk about what is probably the next chapter in FAST: original content. Freevee has been super-aggressive with originals, from Judy Justice to Jury Duty to scripted sitcoms like Primo and Sprung. Roku bought the Quibi library and made a splash with its “Weird Al” movie, and Tubi has also dipped its toe into first-run fare with some movies as well. Do you think it makes sense for FAST platforms to expand from being library-based services into destinations for new programming? And are you watching any of these originals?

S.S.: I have not watched a FAST original except for a few episodes of Jury Duty and Primo, so originals aren’t driving me to these services. What usually appeals to me more are their libraries, which include classic television and movies you most of the time can’t get anywhere else.

N.Q.: Jury Duty strikes me as such an anomaly. I get the broad logic behind pursuing originals, but there’s a fair amount of variation even within the strategy. At this point, FAST services are not destination-viewing options for me, and producing material toward that end is probably a losing gambit: It’s simply too hard to do well. FAST services are visual Muzak, so I’d be down for some good visual Muzak. Produce original home-reno shows or game shows or chill sitcoms. Import more catalogues from abroad. That kind of stuff.

J.A.: I agree with both of you, but this is also why I think FAST platforms would be wise to create some destination channels. Let’s say Freevee did its version of TBS with sitcoms and comedy movies during the day. And then, boom, it adds Primo as a show that debuts new episodes every Sunday night at nine or something. Suddenly, people would have a reason to tune in to that virtual channel and discover other shows they might like. Or what if the upcoming Frasier reboot ran on Pluto instead of Paramount+? New episodes every Tuesday at 9 p.m. like back in the ’90s and then Pluto could program a smaller original or a great movie after it.

N.Q.: Yeah, you’re totally right. Jury Duty is the only reason I tried out Freevee in the first place after all. And the Frasier-reboot question is interesting because it leads us back to a place where the question of product fit can be applied to not just brand but form. This is purely a subjective read, but, for example, paid streaming services never felt like a good home for sitcoms. (Although I understand why the long catalogue of popular sitcoms has been such a boon for those platforms.) It just doesn’t feel right from a brand perspective. They do feel perfect for FAST services: lighter load, lighter commitment, snackable, quick turnaround, already designed to work even if you drop in during the B-block.

S.S.: I’m not opposed to having scheduled viewings, but I do feel like the pleasure of FAST services is that there’s such a relaxed feeling to opening them up. I can just poke around and turn on a random channel or movie and let it rip.

J.A.: I guess I’m trying to bring back linear TV, which I know is not coming back the way it was — but I’m not sure it has to be dead, either. It just has to be more convenient, less filled with ads, not expensive, and, most important, flexible.

N.Q.: You know, if Amazon added live sports to Freevee, that’s a whole different thing …

It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World

J.A.: Given how much money they’re spending on sports, it wouldn’t shock me if we get there at some point. Let’s move on to talk about the A in FAST: advertising. I find they are not all created equally in terms of how many commercials you need to endure or how those ads end up inserted into shows. Thoughts?

E.V.B.: Okay, my biggest pet peeve? All of these services NEED to institute a warning before commercials start. Like, “Ad break in ten seconds” and a countdown.

N.Q.: YES.

E.V.B.: Some do, but many still do not. And often the timing isn’t mapped to the scene or act breaks and the advertising interrupts scenes!!

N.Q.: That’s right — respect the scene break.

J.A.: I agree that is awful, and Freevee is the worst at that. They’ve gotten better, but still — they’ll often just throw an ad in the middle of a sentence. It’s obnoxious. So what about the overall number of ads in FAST? Too much?

E.V.B.: I don’t actually mind the volume, for the most part. I get a bit annoyed when they repeat too much. I’ve seen the same ad roll five times within a break.

S.S.: Oh, that’s the worst.

N.Q.: I also agree with ad repetition. At some point, it becomes bad for the advertiser.

J.A.: I think ad tech has to get better. And some platforms are getting too greedy. Oftentimes, Pluto’s live linear channels have as many ads as cable. And NBCU’s Xumo Play literally doesn’t let you pause or exit out of an ad once it starts playing. I literally have to close the entire app to avoid watching a commercial.

E.V.B.: With TV shows, having to sit through a lot of ads doesn’t bother me as much. But if I am watching a scary horror movie — especially a classic like Halloween — the abundance of ads will piss me off. That will fully pull me out of it.

J.A.: Savannah, you do a lot of reporting about the FAST space. Any other burning questions you think we should tackle?

S.S.: I was wondering how we feel about the potential of Warner Bros. Discovery, and possibly Disney and more companies, creating their own FAST platforms? Do we feel like an influx of FAST services will happen, similar to the paid streamers? Or no?

E.V.B.: It was actually really striking to me that within weeks, earlier this year, WBD had launched, like, 1,984,299,725 FAST channels branded WBTV. I was like, It’s that easy, huh?!

J.A.: Yah, we are already seeing studios trying to curate their own FAST lineup. Like you said, Eric, Warner Bros. Discovery now programs a dedicated hub of WBTV channels on multiple platforms, and over the past few weeks, NBCUniversal has done the same. I’m happy about the extra content — I plan to watch a ton of the Universal Crime channel — but overall, I find these offerings to be sort of generic and not helpful. They’re studios trying to be programmers, and that’s not what they do best.

E.V.B.: That’s also most of those live channels, though, which is why I think the whole FAST category can get a bad rap.

J.A.: My real worry is that these branded channels will eventually lead to studios pulling their content from the Plutos and Tubis of the world and limiting content to FAST platforms they own. It would be like what happened to Netflix five years ago when Friends and The Office and all the Marvel content got plucked.

N.Q.: Gosh, that would suppress what could be a fun level of entrepreneurial competition. Some studios would probably be better off not bearing the cost and putting in the labor of running their own FAST platforms, no? Part of the appeal of syndication is more money for less work.

J.A.: I guess we’ll see. The other thing worth watching: Netflix has also said it could get into FAST. On the one hand, they are so good at designing user interfaces that I think they could come up with a really great linear FAST experience that blends in on-demand nicely. And Netflix definitely needs to monetize its older shows on different platforms. But should we welcome the idea of Netflix in FAST?

E.V.B.: The space definitely still seems open for players to get it right, whether that’s Netflix or others.

S.S.: Netflix getting into FAST feels so wrong. But I thought about their ad tier, and that seems to be going well for them, so …

N.Q.: It would be … pretty interesting to see what they’ll do, I’ll admit.

E.V.B.: I think that if you have a major streaming business, you’re gonna be in FAST somehow in the next year-plus. They need to be exploring these new revenue streams. Whether they succeed or offer something materially different? I don’t know.

‘Cage Rage’ and Other FAST Times

J.A.: It’s going to be interesting to watch this play out. Before we wrap this up, let’s talk about our favorite shows to watch on FAST. For me right now, it’s the early seasons of Wheel of Fortune on Pluto TV. They’ve had a dedicated Wheel channel for a year or two, but it was limited to episodes from this century. Just a few weeks ago, however, they added shows from the first ten-to-15 seasons during the ’80s and ’90s — and it’s spectacular. Finally, I can relive the days when contestants went shopping after each round! For me, this is the best use case for FAST: shows that don’t have broad appeal but fill a solid niche, like game-show nerds. That was the early promise of basic cable, and it’s what I think FAST does best. What are you guys watching?

E.V.B.: I’ve been loving watching Hell’s Kitchen on-demand on Plex lately. I had never watched it on linear before last week. And in general, Plex has a nice collection of on-demand movies right now: HeatLord of War, Halloween. (Plex separately has a media-server function, a whole other thing I love, but I’m talking about licensed streaming offerings here.) Horror is great on FAST in general. I watched Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both for the first time in the past year, on FAST.

N.Q.: My operating unit is the channel: I tend to favor ’90s throwbacks and whatever horror-movie streams they’ve got going on. Oh, and Sky News — and when I feel super-curious, Newsmax. And, Eric, Texas Chainsaw is indeed an excellent FAST movie.

S.S.: I am Samantha Stephens’ No. 1 cheerleader, but I watch Bewitched via FAST on-demand. The only bummer is Freevee has only three out of the eight seasons, Tubi has seasons five and six, then the rest are on the Roku Channel. Other than that, I love how Pluto TV has a bunch of other ’60s television channels that I can sample. It’s like when I watched Nick at Nite as a kid.

J.A.: I am all about Bewitched too, Savannah. And, yeah, Sony makes it superexpensive for platforms to license all seasons to one place, so you gotta go on a hunt to find that witch.

S.S.: Where is her FAST channel??!!

E.V.B.: One more note in Plex’s favor: It has a “Cage Rage” collection right now — just 14 Nic Cage B-movies. For free!

​​N.Q.: See, this is good curation.

What We Love (and Hate) About Free Streaming in 2023