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How to Keep Your FAST Channels Out of the Slow Lane

Person viewing FAST channel TV

Free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST channels) has grown significantly in recent months. However, just because these services are free, it doesn’t mean viewers are more forgiving of bad QoE. They still carry the same expectations they have with paid services.

On top of that, there’s an additional worry for operators: these services rely strictly on ad revenue. When the QoE is bad, whether because of quality or latency, it compromises ad revenue by reducing ad views. Moreover, failing to catch errors in the ads themselves leads to wasted impressions. So the challenge is twofold: how do FAST operators ensure the best QoE while also reducing ad errors? That’s exactly what we explain in this article.

What’s behind the current rise in FAST channel popularity?

We’ve all seen the data about streaming subscriptions per household and how, in many cases, that number is dwindling. As streaming prices continue to rise, especially in harder economic times, it’s only natural for consumers to tighten their belts and cut expenses on luxury items like streaming subscriptions. However, that doesn’t mean that people are watching them less. In fact, recent Nielsen data showed that, finally, streaming viewing has surpassed traditional broadcast television in the number of hours per month. That is largely because of one simple reason: as consumers turn away from paid subscriptions, they turn to free, ad-supported TV services like PlutoTV, Tubi, and other FAST channel providers. Yet, the very benefits that FAST provides to viewers are what causes headaches to streaming operators.

How the benefits of FAST channels add to the QoE challenges

FAST started out a lot like traditional channel surfing: on-demand assets were delivered in a pseudo-live fashion through an electronic programming guide (EPG). This allowed viewers to browse content across dozens, sometimes hundreds of channels, to find something they wanted to watch. However, that also introduced a key performance issue: channel switching. It is not easy to quickly switch channels using standard HTTP segmented streaming. Solving this requires a lot of technical expertise and, of course, data. To ensure that viewers can quickly flick through channels, operators must capture real-time data to optimise that feature.

The second feature that challenges a great QoE is personalisation. Although the free, ad-supported TV EPG can provide access to a lot of content, it can also be overwhelming. FAST channel operators have learned to understand viewer behaviour and offer personalised content: VOD assets stitched together in a single channel based on individual users. Again, to accomplish this, operators must have granular visibility into the viewer, such as through a Customer Data Platform (CDP).

The third feature is the advertisements. Although many streaming services incorporate ads, FAST offerings do it on a much larger scale. These ads need to be personalised as well, utilising viewer and contextual data. Moreover, as FAST operators often work with multiple ad inventory owners and demand partners, this exponentially increases the complexity of ad monitoring.

What ops teams need to overcome FAST channel challenges

All of those “benefit challenges” can be distilled down to a few core issues that FAST channel operators must address to ensure a high QoE. Remember that a great viewing experience (and cool, useful features) not only retains viewers but helps to attract new subscribers as well. 

Scalability

As your subscriber base grows in size and geographic distribution, monitoring becomes more difficult. Not only are you trying to keep latency down, but also deliver ads and personalise content across a score of delivery networks and ISPs. 

Latency

There is a myriad of network issues that can impact delivery and channel-changing speed for your viewers. Even just a slight increase in the time it takes to switch channels within the EPG or buffer ratio could push viewers from your FAST to a competitor’s. Because there is no cost, there is nothing to cancel––and nothing preventing a user from quickly bouncing to another service.

Fragmentation

This is a growing problem within the streaming industry. Whether FAST channel, live, or on-demand, all streaming operators must contend with monitoring QoE across a wide variety of devices, including CTV, mobile phones, browsers, etc. 

Ad error reduction

Subscribers know that ads are part of a FAST service. They understand there will be ad breaks similar to traditional broadcast TV. However, what happens when there are ad errors? What if instead of an ad, there is a black screen, a buffering event, or a volume spike? The answer is simple: subscribers think there is something wrong with the feed so they abandon it. Streaming providers also lose ad revenues because, unless they can prove the error was caused by the advertiser, they’ll have to run the ad again without getting additional income for its impressions. 

The key to improving all of those challenges is data. Yet, it’s not just about getting the data, since it is usually already there. Ad servers provide their dashboards, CDNs provide theirs, and monitoring tools provide their own. Most streaming operators, especially FAST channels, are drowning in dashboards. What’s more, as dashboards continue to proliferate, MTTD and MTTR rise in response, as it takes a lot of time to piece datapoints together and post-process different datasets to reveal quality issues.

An army of monitors + a single dashboard = happy FAST viewers

FAST channels monitoring approaches compared - Touchstream infographic

No matter how many operations engineers you have, you don’t have enough eyes. That’s why the approach to improving the scalability of QoE efforts in FAST channel operations starts with how you are monitoring. In short: automation.

By deploying synthetic monitoring agents throughout the workflow, operations capture the data they need in real time. Remember that every service provider involved in a FAST workflow probably provides their own dashboard with their own idea of the important KPIs or metrics. With your own army of monitoring agents, deployed both with internal components and external partners, you can gather the data that’s important to your business and QoE goals.

Again, just having the data isn’t the crux of solving scalability, latency, and fragmentation challenges. You probably already have that data. The key is how it’s visualised. All of that data needs to come into a single dashboard. The table below shows those challenges against key data points that should all be visible in a single control panel:

Data PointChallengeSource
TTFBImproving latencyCDN(s)
SCTE-35 ad markersReducing ad errorsAd server
Stream switching timeImproving latencyCDN(s)
Ad insertion-timingReducing ad errorsAd Server
Stream availabilityImproving fragmentationCDN(s)
Cache efficiencyEnsuring scalabilityCDN(s)
ISP availabilityEnsuring scalabilityISPs
CDN performanceImproving latencyCDN(s)
Ad availabilityReducing ad errorsAd server/CDN(s)

When FAST operations have access to a single dashboard that shows all of these metrics, they’re empowered to see the issues that are undermining QoE easily: the ad server, the CDN, or the ISP. What’s more, with a properly developed dashboard, they’re able to drill down into the individual log files to better understand what is causing the problem and how to fix it quickly. This top-level to bottom-level approach allows operations to see how sources are interacting with each other without having to do the data post-processing themselves.

👉 Read more: The Complete Guide to Live Stream Monitoring

The results are clear: you’ll be FAST(er) than your competition

Fixing broken URLs before your viewers encounter them, preventing ad errors so impressions and revenue aren’t lost, ensuring that important features like fast channel switching and personalisation work at scale across all devices––these are the results that ensure a high QoE. By consolidating the important data points into a single dashboard, finding and solving issues becomes more actionable (through a visual indicator, like a red number) and less like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Don’t get left in the dust by your competitors because you can’t get a handle on QoE. Touchstream’s VirtualNOC helps you operationalise the key data points in your FAST workflow that you need to keep ad revenue high, churn low, and viewer satisfaction where it should be.

To find out how Touchstream can help you stay ahead of your competition, request a demo today