Why'd You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated? Streaming's Obsession with Acronyms and Ambiguity (Wolk)

American Institute for Economic Research
(Image credit: American Institute for Economic Research)

If the video entertainment industry has one overriding fault, it's the tendency to make everything far more complicated than it needs to be.

Whether it’s confusing acronyms like “MVPD” (multichannel video programming distributor) or "vMVPD" (virtual multichannel video programming distributor), or ambiguous terms like “OTT” (over the top) and “AVOD” (ad-supported video on demand), we seemingly cannot pass up an opportunity to obfuscate.

Alan Wolk

(Image credit: Alan Wolk)

We’re seeing that again with FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV services).

People can’t leave well enough alone.

“FAST” is an industry-only term that originally was used to define the services that offered free ad-supported streaming TV. These are what regular folks generally refer to as “apps” (it’s what they call Netflix and Hulu, too.)

While these services may have originally favored linear channels over on-demand shows or vice-versa, they all now offer a full array of both. In fact, one trend we are seeing now is that all of the FAST services have been working to better integrate their on-demand and linear offerings. This makes perfect sense as consumers will often find something on a linear channel and decide they then want to watch more of it on demand.

This is not a new behavior. It’s exactly what people did 20 years ago when pre-streaming MVPDs started offering on-demand libraries to their subscribers.

Just as critically, the FASTs do not sell their linear and on-demand inventory separately. It’s all just one service and the programmatic algorithms that execute the buys do not care whether someone in the desired demo is watching a linear feed or on demand.

And yet …

I still frequently hear people describe FAST services as consisting of “FAST channels” and “AVOD” as if we were discussing two completely different entities.

Now granted, the term “FAST channels” to describe the linear feeds has become a thing, but they are a feature of the FAST services who stream them. What’s more, they’re unlikely to retain the moniker, as the subscription services are all allegedly planning to launch their own linear channels as a way to better surface their library content, especially to subscribers of their ad-supported tiers.

Given the logic of “give the people what they want” I am inclined to believe those rumors.

But I digress…

I cringe every time I hear someone describe FASTs like that is because, if there is one universal complaint I hear from advertisers and agencies, it's that the whole thing is just far too complicated, that they have no idea what people are talking about half the time, and doesn’t AVOD also include subscription services and why can’t they all just use the same words?

And that is pretty much the thing: while the need to go into detail may seem necessary in the mind of the speaker, what’s really necessary is to ensure that the person hearing them understands what they are talking about and that they are both on the same page.

This is an issue that goes beyond FAST to many (most?) areas of the TV ecosystem, especially those concerning consumers.

Rather than look to emphasize features that will benefit consumers, services all too often look to benefit advertisers or engineers. Apps—free and streaming—are designed in ways that make sense from a business perspective, but not from a consumer one.

That’s why, to use an easy example, so many services seem to insert ads in random places in a show—even cutting a line of dialog in half to accommodate an ad break.

Yes, it’s likely an effective sales tool to tell advertisers that they are one of only two advertisers in a pod, versus the one of eight they’ll get on linear.

But rather than creating a positive experience for the consumer, they’ve created a negative one, and it’s likely the consumer is going to blame the brand whose ad interrupted the line of dialog, along with the streaming service that enabled it.

Interface is another area where consumers could use a little more love.

This is where the actual debate about linear versus on demand should be playing out, but with very different parameters.

The usual consumer journey is to discover a program on one of the linear channels, decide they really like the show, and then look for the on-demand library where they can watch as many older episodes as they like. This is often episodes they’ve missed, early-season episodes that explain key plot points or, in the case of non-fiction, episodes that deal with a specific topic.

Regardless, creating services that allow users to have this kind of journey is something that streaming services should all be doing, regardless of business model, and for some reason, do not.

Granted, some of the reasons may be legal in nature — rights holders getting weird about the rights — but overall it should not be difficult to execute.

One final thought on this push to overly complicate everything: viewers don’t really give much thought to how their programming is delivered or how it’s being monetized.

To them, it’s all just TV.

Alan Wolk

Alan Wolk is the co-founder and lead analyst for media consultancy TV[R]EV