Autentic’s Patrick Hörl, Blue Ant International’s Solange Attwood and Albatross World Sales’ Lisa Schelhas weighed in on the new opportunities the AVOD sector is presenting to factual content distributors at the FAST Festival.
Kristin Brzoznowski, the executive editor of World Screen, moderated the FAST Facts panel featuring Hörl, founder and managing director of Autentic; Attwood, executive VP of Blue Ant International; and Schelhas, sales director at Albatross. You can view the session here.
“We track our revenues from VOD systematically in our sales business, and we never thought that AVOD would play such a big role,” Hörl said. “Last year was the first year our AVOD revenues surpassed our SVOD revenues, which was unexpected.”
Attwood agreed: “AVOD in particular, even in the last 24 months, has had substantial year-over-year growth. And it has, as part of our windowing strategy, become incredibly important, especially in monetizing deep catalog. Content or IP that is, in some cases, 10, 12, 16 or 20 years old is getting another life in terms of monetization efforts on AVOD. It is a bright shining spot with major year-over-year growth, especially in the last two years.”
Blue Ant Media is working in FAST in two ways: operating its own channels and licensing to other services. The company has seen “substantial” year-on-year growth in the sector.
Autentic is also taking a “two-track” approach to FAST, Hörl said. “We run our own FAST channels and make content available to other people’s FAST channels. One of the reasons for this is, to be quite frank, we don’t know which horse is going to run faster, and we are still learning about FAST. If you just look at Europe, it’s difficult to say how much of a business this is and how the dynamics work. We are still trying to figure that out and have our hands in all pots possible.”
“Remaining platform-agnostic is certainly our approach as well as a distributor,” Attwood said. “We want to be engaged with everybody. It’s impossible to predict what the future will hold. Ensuring that you’re involved in and engaged and monetizing with all platforms—our own as well as third parties—is a great way to see how the market is moving and make educated choices on what’s next.”
FAST is a growing segment, she continued, “and you want to be where the growth is. We have our own brands, and supporting those brands is also an important component of our distribution business. We’re even acquiring programming that might suit our FAST brands because of a coordinated approach. FAST is very strategic. That said, it’s a part of our commercialization and monetization strategy. We still do significant business with other platforms and rights, which remain incredibly important to the ecosystem. FAST is an important part of the calculus but a component of a very sophisticated windowing strategy.”
One of the complexities of working in FAST is managing deliverables, Hörl noted. “It’s much more complex in the FAST world than we as a company expected. And it’s sometimes also frustrating to realize that there are so many different norms and standards between the platforms. This will be sorted out one day so that there will be one standard that probably applies to most of the platforms. But we are suffering because we have to deliver to various platforms with completely different standards. I find the length of the synopsis required particularly frustrating sometimes. You have so many different numbers of words that define the limits, and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a standard for word delivery that applies to all of those platforms.”
Attwood added: “When talking to a new partner, we’re open and transparent about what the new world looks like in terms of deliverables. And we’ve spent a lot of time reviewing our standard templates and adjusting them annually as to where the market is going. As long as you’re open and transparent with people, they understand that a delivery component and the costs of delivery will be higher for those new platforms because there is no standardized accepted version.”
The panelists then addressed the importance of volume in the FAST space. “It’s an important part of the calculus,” Attwood noted. “Not having enough scale in a segment looking to load up on a lot of inventory is challenging. When producers come to us and say, well, I’ve got this one show, how could you get me into the FAST space? My typical answer is, you need to partner with a distributor with some meaningful scale, which gets you into the deal flow you want to participate in.”
Hörl added: “Volume is important because everybody’s trying to block shelf space. There are only a couple of us that have enough volume of programming under our belts to play this game. But viewers don’t want to be swamped with content they don’t find attractive enough. So, it’s more like a B2B challenge to block the shelf space from other competitors. But ultimately, I think the market will move toward a scenario where it’s more about quality than quantity in the FAST space. We all know that the shelf space is limited. We know that people’s time is limited. We need to figure out the best shows to put on the air.”
Autentic is also in the traditional pay-TV channels space, which presents challenges of its own when navigating the FAST arena. “What differentiates this AVOD service from a pay-TV service? You can’t put the same amount and quality of programs on the AVOD that you also put on SVOD because people will wonder what they are paying for. [We need] to find the right balance there. We need to figure out how this FAST approach to the market fits into our other ways to the customers and makes sense without cannibalizing the neighboring exploitation path.”
Schelhas agreed it is still a volume play, as “channels need a lot of hours to get going.” She added, “You need to keep multiple revenue streams open and figure out what works for them. They don’t work with you as linear broadcasters do. They don’t tell you, we need this specific documentary on Charlemagne; it’s more, we want history. This will change. They will know better what they want.”
“We’re in a shelf-space war,” Attwood noted. “So, by necessity, it’s volume. It’s about the differentiation between various brands trying to secure that shelf space. At some point in its evolution, FAST will have to define itself in another way when the shelves are full. Will it then become a conversation around exclusivity? Will it become a conversation around original programming? All of those pieces are things that all of us think about. For our brands, we’ve gone to the marketplace and made clear that 75 percent of our inventory is exclusive on FAST. That’s a big statement. That suggests that various FAST channels in the marketplace are starting to want to curate. They want to offer consumers a particular kind of experience that they perhaps can’t get elsewhere. There is this natural evolution that we have seen in other market segments beginning to happen.”
As for the types of content that work best in FAST, natural history, history, science, paranormal, crime and lifestyle are all faring well, Attwood noted, pointing to Blue Ant’s strengths in those areas.
“Given our strength in natural history and our partnerships with Terra Mater Studios, for example, we feel very strongly about being able to deliver a great wildlife natural history channel,” Hörl said. “The second most successful genre for us is history. And then it’s science and travel. The same rules apply if you run thematic channels in the pay-TV space or even the terrestrial space.”
For Schelhas, it’s “timeless stories” that are resonating. “Natural history works. Science, for us, is not a major genre. We noticed an uptick in environmental stories. Especially in Europe, a lot of FAST channel viewers are younger than the usual TV audience, and they are very engaged with environmental stories.”
The panelists then weighed in on how meaningful FAST is becoming as a revenue contributor.
“It’s mainly an add-on,” Schelhas said. “We still work mostly with linear broadcasters. We can’t prioritize FAST for our newer content. We usually have revenue-share agreements with [operators], sometimes with a minimum guarantee on top. Especially in the documentary space, I think there is not a lot of room for cash. But in the last six months, they’re starting to pay more flat fees. They’re more open to discussing this and paying substantial flat fees. I think the market is moving a bit more in that direction. It will get more substantial.”
Hörl added: “It’s probably too early to build a business just on FAST channels. It’s not even clear to us whether the rev-share approach or the inventory-share approach is the right way to monetize our content. We are experimenting on both fronts. The kind of advertising that works on FAST differs from the bulk of advertising placed on regular broadcasters. FAST is a medium that’s much more open to targeted advertising. It fits better into how advertising agencies are working when they try to buy the leftover airtime. This is all still an emerging market. But it is growing at a very nice rate.”
Attwood called FAST revenues a “material” contributor to the Blue Ant bottom line. “We have material revenues that are coming from FAST, whether that’s on our brand channel side or the distribution side. Part of that is we have economies of scale, and therefore, we’re engaged with a lot of different platforms. In terms of the ways in which we’re partnering with people, we do everything from rev-share deals to multiyear license fee-like output commitments that also include a back-end position.”
Schelhas noted that smaller distributors, in particular, can benefit from working with an aggregator as a way to minimize the costs and time of getting content distributed to all the key platforms. “It’s really good to have an aggregator that bundles your content, that works with you to ingest it into all of these platforms.”