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What's behind the rise of free, ad-supported streaming channels


Linear TV is making a comeback but, this time, via streaming. Tubi and Pluto TV are among the free streaming services that allow you to turn on a channel online with ads. Want to watch reruns of a classic show?


WILLIAM SHATNER: (As James T. Kirk) Beam me up, Mr. Spock.

RASCOE: Yes, there is a "Star Trek" channel, and there's a bunch of other shows and movies as well. Here to break it down for us is Dade Hayes, business editor at Deadline Hollywood. Welcome to the program.

DADE HAYES: Great to be with you.

RASCOE: These streaming services are called free ad-supported streaming television, or FAST for short. Tell me a little bit about them and their offerings because it sounds a little bit to me like this thing we used to have, which was, like, broadcast TV where you would, like, turn on the TV, and there were ads, and that's how that worked (laughter).

HAYES: You're definitely on the right page with that. I mean, I think it's a mix of the old-school broadcast rabbit ears TV experience, and the way cable turned it into a bigger menu of options. And this is all taking place in the digital environment, so imagine how many websites there are out there, how many social media, you know, pages there are out there. It's just as targeted and sliced and diced as that kind of world.

RASCOE: What sets the big streamers like Tubi, Pluto TV and, like, Roku Channel apart from each other?

HAYES: There's different emphasis on live, linear-style programming and on demand. Like, Tubi is much more of a library on-demand experience, where you poke around, or you know something is there, and you search for it, and you call it up, and you watch it. Pluto is a lot more of a leaned-back - there's an onscreen programming guide where you can channel surf and do a lot of the stuff that we're all - you know, some of us have been accustomed to doing for decades, you know, with traditional TV. And then there's a few services - Local Now is one. Amazon Fire TV is another that have kind of a different orientation, whether it's - Local Now has a lot of local TV stations on it. Fire TV lets you search by genre - sports, cooking, you know, travel, different kind of things that you're looking for.

RASCOE: And the big thing about this is that you don't need a subscription to Tubi and Pluto TV and these other things. You can just, like, get on them, right?

HAYES: They're absolutely free, and in fact, they're really kind of designed for that unboxing of a smart TV set. You know, that's why Samsung and Vizio and LG and all the, you know, TV makers also are deeply invested in FAST because they want you to bring the set home, plug it in, and as long as you've got an Internet connection, you can jump on these FAST channels without a pay TV subscription. The system is losing 5, 6 million pay TV subscriptions every year. People are cutting the cord. Now, it's not quite equivalent to cable TV or the pay TV package that you're leaving behind, but you don't need to pay anything. You know, these are wide open and free, and that's what they're sort of experimenting with.

RASCOE: How are these services influencing traditional streaming, like Netflix? Because this is, you know, kind of crowding the market now, right?

HAYES: It's keeping everybody on their toes, and, you know, some of those subscription services - like, I'm thinking of Peacock - took FAST into account when they launched. They have a whole sort of vertical within Peacock that is a FAST lane, if you will. It's like this area of peacock that is FAST channels, so you're starting to see more of that as we go, and, you know, my prediction is that as advertising becomes a lot more common in streaming - you know, Netflix and Disney just launched ad services last fall - you're going to see more FAST included in the mix. I think it's just going to be a type of streaming that's appealing to a certain consumer that's going to end up taking up more real estate overall.

RASCOE: That's Dade Hayes, business editor at Deadline Hollywood. Thank you so much.

HAYES: It's been my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.