FAST Times

The AVOD business is booming, leading to a wealth of new opportunities for distributors with sizable factual content slates. 

Whether you can’t get enough of hotheaded celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay or are eager to spend a day on a true-crime binge, the AVOD universe has something for you. Indeed, FAST channels have taken the model from the heyday of pay TV—branded networks delivering everything from general entertainment to nothing but motoring shows—and put it on steroids. There is a service for every niche, which means that distributors with sizable catalogs are finding plenty of new ways to monetize their IP.

“With Covid slowly disappearing, a war in Europe, an energy crisis and inflation of around 7 percent to 9 percent, people are having a closer look at their subscription fees,” says Ralf Rückauer, VP Unscripted at ZDF Studios. “Ad-funded business models are getting more into play. Specifically, FAST channels are getting a lot of momentum, while SVOD is losing a bit. For us as a distributor, both models are interesting in the mix with classical free and pay linear.”

Hud Woodle, executive VP of international sales and operations at GRB Studios, notes, “AVOD has presented extremely well for us and our international sales efforts. AVOD platforms are popping up all over the world, and so are FAST channels. This has certainly resulted in an increased demand for unscripted content across the board.”

Anne Olzmann, managing director of Albatross World Sales, agrees that the AVOD space has become increasingly important. “After a true ‘launch wave’ of SVOD platforms accelerated by the pandemic, this market is slowly but steadily saturated. Now, in combination with inflation and world-shaking events such as the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, people are becoming more reluctant about where to spend their entertainment money. So, seemingly, the free options that AVOD and FAST offer are the go-to solutions to broaden the offer. With different SVOD platforms now also exploring lower or even dropping subscription fees, this is quite obvious to note. We have been working with different AVOD and FAST operators for quite some time now, and while it has taken some time to set up, it’s starting to become very lucrative, especially for titles that have made their TV round and are ready for third and fourth runs.”

Autentic Distribution is also seeing increased trade with AVOD services, according to Mirjam Strasser, head of sales and acquisitions. “We are already cooperating with a number of them for YouTube exploitation and can see a constant and growing revenue stream from there. AVOD is the fastest-growing segment of the TV market right now. Autentic has been active in this market for a while now. Together with our trusted partners, we are increasingly monetizing our IP via AVOD.”

The FAST business, however, is not for the faint of heart. Managing deliverables can be a challenge for those without the proper expertise.

“We had to create a specific structure in-house to deal with this volume of deliveries,” Olzmann says. “After all, we remain a small team, and our focus has not necessarily always been volume but rather high-end one-offs and specials. TV remains our core business. When it comes to AVOD/FAST, we noticed that different platforms have different needs. Some need a 100-word synopsis; others want 150 words. The same goes for the artwork that goes with it. But once you have a delivery base for the programs, things can move quickly and need less adaptation. But it was certainly a big challenge to evaluate potential revenues and how much effort we can put in. This is especially the case for revenue-share deals, where you have to take a certain risk in the beginning and deliver without really knowing what revenues are to be expected. But we have spent a lot of time exploring the different markets and platforms and now have a good base to work with different AVOD/FAST buyers in different territories.”

Strasser says Autentic has started developing a “metadata delivery infrastructure” as it builds its business with on-demand operators. “Extra headcount is required. And we need to educate our production partners to ensure that the right deliverables are generated in the production workstream.”

As Olzmann notes, distributors have to make strategic decisions over how much time to invest in building an AVOD strategy. “On a per-title basis, AVOD revenues are still relatively low—it’s all about volume,” she says. “We distribute a German classic wildlife TV series called Eye to Eye with Nature by Ernst Arendt and Hans Schweiger that has been running since the ’70s and now has over 50 episodes. We have sold AVOD and FAST rights, and we see how much the audience loves this, as these episodes can’t be seen anywhere else. Wildlife and nature films are a very rewarding genre for third and fourth runs on AVOD and FAST.”

Autentic’s Strasser observes, “AVOD represents a significant share of our content distribution revenues. But these revenues have to be seen in context. They are a meaningful add-on to other revenue sources. But they are not yet significant enough to fund original productions. Will AVOD develop the revenue power to pay for the creation of quality content? That’s the big question.”

Woodle has seen reignited interest in GRB’s older shows, such as Full Force Nature, Storm Warning! and The Ultimate Stuntman—A Tribute to Dar Robinson, which are “in-demand and performing relatively well on AVOD platforms,” he says.

“Volume is, of course, key,” he continues. “With sufficient volume, be it series or genre, the content may be programmed into its own channel—that lends itself to the lean-back process. For example, GRB has 200-plus hours of On the Case. In theory, there might be an On the Casechannel, and people could lean back and enjoy it. This works on linear as well. Of course, On the Case would also fit nicely on a crime channel or AVOD section. FAST and AVOD present many new opportunities and flexibility. We’ve found it to be a quite lucrative business working with these services.”

Max Einhorn, senior VP of acquisitions and co-productions at FilmRise, encourages content owners to have an AVOD strategy. The company operates the FilmRise Streaming Network, a slate of apps and FAST channels curated around genres, among them true crime, and distributes a library of content to third-party services.

“We’re big believers in ubiquitous distribution for film and television library content,” Einhorn says. “Unless you have something big and special that’s very expensive, having your content exclusively with one platform [means] leaving money on the table, and you’re preventing yourself from building an audience for your content.”

Einhorn adds, “We have business cases that suggest there’s no cannibalization when you distribute content onto multiple platforms. In fact, there’s more than a one-to-one increase in terms of monetization for ad-supported revenue. We see the awareness of a piece of content being lifted overall when content is placed in many places, and it’s to the benefit of the distributor.”

As for where AVOD should sit when crafting a distribution strategy, the jury is still out on that one.

“While the ‘VOD team’ wants to market as quickly and widely as possible, the ‘linear channels team’ often hopes that we will be able to negotiate a presale or a sale at much better conditions,” says Rückauer at ZDF Studios. “The VOD team tends to say that the linear channel hopes for [exclusivity] last too long. The truth lies in the middle. You have to balance this internal dispute very carefully. And at the same time, almost all ‘traditional’ broadcasters want more and more holdbacks and securities, while VOD and FAST channels offer more attractive long-tail effects. Gut feelings and some market experience help a lot.”

At Albatross, Olzmann notes, “We don’t work as much with windowing and AVOD yet. At this point, our main clients for new programs remain TV broadcasters and SVOD. However, with TV deals, we try to limit holdbacks for VOD, thus including AVOD.”

“We can see that more and more linear partners seek exclusive AVOD rights for themselves, or they require holdbacks against AVOD,” agrees Strasser at Autentic. “This, too, confirms the success of these channels; AVOD services are increasingly competing with linear cable and satellite channels. Windowing strategies are a regular topic in all sales conversations these days.”

While AVOD deals are still largely rev-shares with the occasional minimum guarantee, traditional license fees are a new development in the space, Woodle says.

“If a program is available in a territory, we’ll approach and offer it to all platforms and traditional channels equally,” Woodle says. “Depending on the level of interest, if any service, be it SVOD, AVOD or linear, is able to pay a license fee, GRB can consider an exclusive agreement, and we are open to doing that. We’re also interested in windowing as the program and territory/regional markets might allow.”

Outside of bigger players like Roku and Amazon Freevee, AVOD channels are almost entirely playing in the acquisitions game. But originals should be expected for platforms as they scale.

“The advertising-based marketing model seems very suitable for factual programming,” says Rückauer at ZDF Studios.

“Many AVOD and FAST channels are quite niche-oriented—their advertising offer is limited and therefore can’t generate the same advertising revenue” as traditional broadcasters, Olzmann says. “Advertisers, too, have to increase and split their marketing budgets between different advertising platforms depending on their strategy and brand. So, at the moment, revenues are still quite limited, and I believe don’t allow them to invest in many originals. However, to market the AVOD brand itself, it makes sense to invest in flagship programming that will define that brand. I think this is a way to go, but it will still take more time than it took for SVOD platforms.”

FilmRise, encouraged by the success of its true-crime platform, has begun partnering on originals, among them Bloodline Detectives with Nancy Grace.

“We found that there is a certain size of production that we can get comfortable with,” Einhorn says. “These are unscripted co-productions that we’re getting involved with in which we say, We understand the capability of monetization and revenue generation in the space. If we get involved in something at this stage, we are not going to be depending on an SVOD platform or a broadcaster to take that first window position. We’re not depending on a license fee. We have the luxury of being able to effectively syndicate out a series or engineer when there is a micro exclusivity with certain platforms to help make these productions possible. Bloodline Detectives, for which we’ve already done two seasons, we syndicated outward to broadcast and to many digital platforms.”

“The question is not if, but when,” says Autentic’s Strasser on AVOD services becoming major commissioners of originals. “We are already looking for the right projects.”

Strasser says that Autentic is also planning the launch of FAST channels based on its own IP, a space that several distributors with major brands are looking at or have already entered. Banijay has FAST channels devoted to megabrands such as Deal or No Deal, Fear Factor and The Biggest Loser. Even Curiosity Stream, a leader in the SVOD factual space, has unveiled a FAST channel service, Curiosity Now, primarily to help drive the discovery of its curated originals and acquisitions.

Adam Lewinson, chief content officer at Tubi, notes that the Gordon Ramsay FAST channel has been proving popular with users because it provides “a sampling opportunity for new content. The great thing about democratizing content is that it gives you every opportunity to find different paths to it.”