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The Wild West of streaming TV is here and it’s free

Welcome to FAST: The free, ad-supported, streaming television bargain bin.

Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

I was looking for Night Court, for research purposes. Not the new version; the original, which went off the air in 1992. Much to my surprise, I found all nine seasons on a streaming app that I’d never heard of before, and that I didn’t have to pay for, called Freevee. The catch? I just had to watch a few ads.

A free streaming service? In this subscription economy? What is this magic?

I dove into my TV’s app listings and discovered a cornucopia of similar offerings, with strange names like Tubi, Pluto, and Xumo. If they don’t sound familiar, you’ll recognize their owners: Fox, Paramount, and Comcast, respectively. Freevee is owned by Amazon. Even my TV has its own free streaming app, Samsung TV Plus. Content can vary, but the format is pretty standard: They offer hundreds of linear live channels and on-demand libraries of thousands of hours of TV shows and movies. The content ranges from old and obscure to recent reruns and castoffs. You might see a few original shows in there, too. And maybe a few your friends recommended.

These are free, ad-supported, streaming TV — also known as FAST — services. They’re kind of having a moment. Viewers are finding them as they look for alternatives to costly cable and premium streaming subscriptions. Studios, cable companies, and streaming device manufacturers are turning to them as they look for ways to grab new eyeballs and ad dollars, wring more money out of their archives, and promote their other paid services and products. If you’ve only known a world of paying for subscriptions (or using your parents’ password) to watch streaming movies and TV shows, FAST might seem like a novel idea. If you’re older, it probably looks like an updated digital version of an old friend called basic cable.

FAST is a throwback to television before Netflix. It may also be a big part of its future, according to Alan Wolk, media analyst and co-founder of TVREV.

“Once Netflix and Disney and all of them get their ad product up and running,” Wolk said, “the big advertisers who’ve been hesitant to spend money on streaming because it’s still mostly reruns are going to go, ‘Oh, I get it. Netflix, that’s the new primetime, FAST is the new cable. This is how I’ll spend the money.’”

The rise and mechanics of FAST

Wolk knows the world of FAST pretty well because he’s the one who came up with the term around the end of 2018. It was a way to distinguish completely free streaming services with paid streamers that had a cheaper ad tier. This is also around the time when FAST started to take off, with major media companies and device manufacturers buying them up or starting their own. They often rely on third parties to fill up their libraries and channels, which resemble what you’ll find on traditional television. Some have their own original or exclusive content.

You’ll also, of course, find those unskippable ads plopped in the middle of it. These companies aren’t providing FAST services and content out of the goodness of their hearts. For something like Paramount, which bought Pluto for $340 million in January 2019, FAST is a way to reach whoever isn’t watching Paramount’s broadcast and cable channels and doesn’t want to pay for its premium streaming service, Paramount+. It’s also a way to monetize its voluminous archives of television and movies, and give free users a taste of what they can get on Paramount+.

“Our ecosystems complement each other,” Scott Reich, senior vice president of programming at Pluto, said. While Paramount+ has the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Pluto’s got the previous season and the first episode of the new one.

“We’re helping upsell over to Paramount+ to see the new season,” Reich said. “You can use Pluto TV as a way of catching up and previewing. And then you go behind the paywall on Paramount+ to continue.”

Or maybe you’re Fox, which doesn’t have a paid streaming service (aside from Fox Nation, which is a niche product) to lose billions of dollars a year on. So it can put a little piece of money into Tubi, which it does. Those investments have helped Tubi amass the largest library of all the FAST services, and they’ve helped it make big gains in viewership and ad revenue. Fox bought Tubi for $440 million in March 2020. It reportedly turned down offers of up to $2 billion three years later, and Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch recently said its performance has been “nothing short of stellar.”

“We make money when people consume content, so deep engagement is really the key,” said Adam Lewinson, Tubi’s chief content officer. “In this world we live in these days, where everyone is down their own rabbit hole, if I made a judgment call that everyone is going to watch this one piece of content, it’s a very risky bet. As opposed to saying well, across 50,000 titles, we truly have something for everyone. And, frankly, a lot of it.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic and Daniel Radcliffe promote “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”
“Weird Al” Yankovic and Daniel Radcliffe show off The Roku Channel’s new movie, which is free for anyone to watch on the Roku Channel.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for the Roku Channel

For a device manufacturer like Roku, FAST is a way to monetize the exclusive access it has to users. It can put its own Roku Channel front and center on users’ menus, and it can use the data it collects on what they watch to target ads to them. Yes, your TV is spying on you, unless you’ve opted out of being watched while you’re watching. That’s why Roku is happy to offer the Roku Channel to non-Roku users too. Like most of these services, Roku Channel is available as a standalone app and on the internet. You don’t have to own a Roku or even a television.

And if you’re a third-party provider, FAST offers another way to distribute and make money off of your content. Some companies try to get their shows on as many platforms as possible, which is why you can find 24/7 channels of Forensic Files reruns on seemingly every FAST service. Or they may do exclusive deals or partnerships with FAST services, like Samsung TV Plus’s new Conan O’Brien TV, Freevee’s Washington Post Television, or Roku’s Mythical 24/7. If you can make money off of mostly repackaged content or episodes of Topper, a show that peaked at 24 in the Nielsen ratings in 1954, well, why not?

FAST channels typically have revenue-sharing deals with distributors, in which case they’re both getting paid based on how many ads are served. Sometimes that’s a good deal, sometimes it’s not. But the FAST service isn’t taking a risk either way.

“They make money on them together, and only if people are watching,” David Offenberg, a finance professor at Loyola Marymount University said. “If nobody watches the show, no ads get served, then nobody makes any money. And it doesn’t cost anybody. ... The economics are vastly different than all the subscription services.”

If they’re owned by a company with its own archives, like Pluto and its Paramount library, then that’s an easy enough source. Or they may have licensing agreements, where they just pay a set fee for access to the content. The platforms won’t tell you exactly how their various deals are structured, but Tubi’s Lewinson told Vox that the platform has more than 450 content partners, from major studios on down to tiny independent distributors, and that the industry in general has “all different kinds of business models.”

“It’s very Wild West still,” Wolk said.

Speaking of the West, you may have noticed that Westworld isn’t on Max (formerly known as HBO Max) anymore. It’s on FAST. In an effort to cut costs, Warner Bros. Discovery decided it was time to get rid of old content that wasn’t bringing in enough viewers to justify the cost of hosting it on the platform, like paying out residuals. Some of those shows got a second home on Tubi and Roku. Expect to see this kind of deal happen a lot more as premium streaming services that spent like crazy to win the streaming wars realize that they have to have a sustainable business model, too. Disney just cut dozens of shows, including the ’80s fantasy reboot Willow from Disney+ and Hulu. You’ll probably see some of them pop back up on FAST. Some shows are still pretty fresh too; Willow’s last episode came out just a few months ago.

This all gets back to a major reason why FAST is coming into its own as an alternative revenue stream and distribution model. The streaming wars saw several major media companies launch their own premium streaming services, complete with big libraries and exclusive content. It cost them billions, but they needed to win over the viewers and their pocketbooks as their traditional television audiences kept shrinking.

Now, it’s clear even to the most anti-ad streamer — Netflix — that ad-free streaming alone isn’t enough. The company is adding ad tiers, cutting back on content, and looking for ways to monetize the stuff that’s not bringing in subscribers. They’re also hoping to reach the audiences that can’t or won’t pay for streaming or cable. FAST is a way to do all of those things.

“They’re serving two different markets, really. The subscription service is serving the higher-end consumer, and the FAST service is serving the lower-end consumer,” Offenberg said.

Evan Rachel Wood riding a horse in a rocky lanscape.
Evan Rachel Wood stars in Westworld, now streaming on Tubi and Roku — and not Max.

It seems to be working. People are tuning in, and advertisers are responding accordingly. Pluto and Tubi recently met the viewership minutes threshold to break into Nielsen’s The Gauge ratings report, which measures total minutes viewed on television screens, becoming the first FAST services to do so. Pluto, Tubi, and Roku combined had just 2.7 percent of all television viewing in March 2023, Nielsen told Vox. Netflix alone had 7.3 percent that month. But that 2.7 was a 53 percent increase from just a year ago. Pluto had 12 million monthly active users in 2019; it now has 80 million. Tubi currently has 64 million monthly active users, up from 25 million three years ago.

“Cable TV numbers are just falling through the floor,” Offenberg said. “As we speak, probably another million people have dropped. FAST is an easy, free alternative.”

Why you’ll be watching a FAST service soon (if you aren’t already)

A FAST service probably isn’t going to replace your current television habits, be they subscription streaming or traditional television. But it could make for a nice supplement, especially if you’re looking for ways to cut costs.

Frankly, cable and subscription streaming companies have given us plenty of reasons to leave them. Cable bills kept going up, so we cut the cord and subscribed to a streaming service instead. Much less money and plenty of stuff to watch, including the big shows everyone was talking about and maybe some of the network and cable shows you were missing, shown shortly after they aired. Then another streamer came along, so you subscribed to that, too. Then a third. A fourth. And then they all raised their prices. They took some of your favorite shows off the platform entirely. You’re paying more and getting less. If you’re going to have to watch ads, well, you might as well not be paying money to do it.

Or maybe you’ll discover FAST because you followed a show you liked that got kicked off a paid platform and put on a free one. Maybe you heard about an original show on Freevee, or you’re into Tubi’s no-budget horror movies, or you really want to watch Star Trek: Voyager, but not enough to pay for Paramount+.

Maybe you just want to turn the television on, channel surf, and then let Pluto’s exclusive all-Blue Bloods channel or the platform-agnostic Bob Ross channel feed you content instead of spending several minutes sifting through an on-demand library picking what you want to watch next. There’s something to be said for that tried-and-tested TV-watching formula. According to a recent survey from Tivo, people are about 50-50 on whether they prefer FAST channels or the on-demand libraries.

As to which FAST service you should watch, you don’t have to make any kind of commitment or, in most cases, even make an account to start watching. Here are a few guides to FAST platforms that’ll get you started on that journey. They offer a lot of the same third-party channels, so the differences lie in their interface (you might find some easier to use or search than others) and whatever they have that no one else does. Pluto prides itself on its human curators who program its exclusive channels, and it has all that Paramount content. Tubi’s recent Super Bowl ad (being owned by the network that’s airing the game has its benefits) showed large rabbits throwing people down holes of content, because Tubi’s strategy is to have the largest possible library with something for everyone, including niche and underserved audiences. Freevee and Roku have had a few breakthrough original shows. And now that they’re getting more viewers and ad money, the quality of the content is improving. Wolk, the guy who coined the term, says the evolution of FAST is reminiscent of the early days of cable.

“They’re getting better shows, more recent shows, shows from premium networks,” he said. “In the old days, cable was how you reached a larger audience. You would hit your audience on primetime. And then all the people you missed on primetime, that’s why you advertised on cable, to reach them. We’re going to see a similar thing.”

There is one thing missing from that, Wolk said, and that’s money. Subscription streamers spend and lose a lot of it, for the most part. TV and film writers are currently on strike because streamers pay them so much less than traditional television did. Well, FAST pays even less than that. For decades, broadcast and cable channels had a major source of revenue in billions of dollars worth of fees that cable companies (and their customers) paid to carry them, known as retransmission and carriage fees. Those don’t exist in the world of FAST. Or premium streaming, for that matter.

That said, you get what you pay for. Unless you came in because it had a show that you specifically wanted, like my Night Court journey, FAST services may not have exactly what you’re looking for. But they’ll probably have something you’d like.

Perhaps the best way I can illustrate this is through Betty White. Across the FAST landscape, you can find a lot of shows from White’s prodigious career, from her early ’50s sitcom Life with Elizabeth to Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which ended in 2017. You can even find her animal talk show from the ’70s if you want to see Vincent Price’s pug, Puffalina Pansy Price. But you won’t find The Golden Girls, which is probably what you wanted to see. That’s on Hulu. For now, anyway.

A version of this story was also published in the Vox technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!


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