There are, by my loose count, 15,000 different subscription-based video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms currently operating in Canada, give or take. Netflix, Prime Video, Crave, the Criterion Channel and on and on – all those Paramount and Disney pluses can add up to subscription fatigue, especially as households take a closer look at their budgets as a recession looms.
But while those SVOD services are only getting more expensive – even the relatively cheap Apple TV+ raised its subscription fee by $3 a month this past October, marking the first time Apple ever hiked prices in Canada – there are a handful of new streamers that don’t cost a thing. Except your tolerance for advertising.
Welcome to Canada’s new era of FAST streaming, or “free ad-supported television.” While Canadians either bored by or priced out of the SVOD game have been experimenting with FAST service Tubi since that Fox-owned entity began operating here in 2015 – though it expanded widely here this year thanks to a partnership with Shaw Communications – this month sees two new high-profile FAST entrants make a play for the burgeoning market.
Last week, the CBC launched CBC News Explore, a channel on its ad-supported Gem streamer that promises a slower, more thoughtful take on the news. Think of, um, the planned but then scuttled-at-the-last-minute CNN+? Or maybe the hope is for Explore to lean closer to HBO’s vaunted documentary unit. The one thing for certain is that Explore is an attempt to expand the reach of its homegrown content without truly competing with the American giants and their steadily escalating price points.
A slightly different philosophy is built into Canada’s other new FAST player, Pluto TV. Launched last week, the streamer boasts 20,000 hours of free programming delivered from deep within the vaults of owner Paramount and domestic partner Corus Entertainment. How deep? Think of Pluto as the equivalent of watching basic-cable during a weekday afternoon circa 1997: Unsolved Mysteries, JAG, Beverly Hills 90210, Baywatch, and tons of reality fare. But there are also relatively recent films (hey, it’s that semi-forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal awards bait drama Stronger, neato), a wealth of kids programming and 24-hours news pumped in from local Global channels here, and CBS in the U.S.
Pluto viewers – “subscribers” doesn’t apply here – can watch either by selecting titles on-demand or via the service’s 110 thematic and single-series channels. Selecting the latter option means that audiences will jump into programs mid-run, encountering ad breaks along the way. (No pre-roll ads here, though – a crucial decision that Pluto executives made early on to avoid immediately scaring audiences away.) If this all sounds familiar to how television used to work before the great Netflix disruption, well, it is.
As Olivier Jollet, executive vice-president and international general manager for Pluto TV says, FAST services are in the business of providing “lean-back” entertainment.
“I’m a strong believer in the lean-back experience at a time when content is getting crowded and we’re seeing viewers crave simplicity,” Jollet said in an interview with The Globe. “The vision behind FAST is to recall that TV used to be such a simple product. Let’s make streaming as simple as TV used to be.”
That emphasis on “simple” is crucial, given that Pluto isn’t interested in investing in original programming. This is strictly a catalogue business, which might dash the hopes of Canadian content creators looking for more outlets.
“We’re not commissioning content but we are creating new channels with unique programming,” Jollet says. “Libraries can be a strong asset. Look at the big SVOD services, where the most-watched content is not always new originals, but older shows like Friends, Lost.”
Pluto is already available in more than 30 countries and territories, with a global audience of 72 million monthly active users, and its entry into Canada marks something of an evolutionary step for the FAST market in this country. Given that our audiences are already flooded with SVOD services, which operate in near (but not consistent) tandem with U.S. streamers, if a FAST service can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
While there is no regulatory requirement or minimum threshold for Canadian content for Pluto TV to launch here, the service’s partnership with Corus – including 2,500 hours of “specially curated” homegrown programming from the Canadian company’s home, food, drama, kids and news divisions – offers the kind of familiar, locally relevant programming that Jollet hopes will entice domestic viewers.
“Canadian shows like Border Security, Property Brothers, Top Chef Canada, plus the news portfolio with Global, these make our partnership with Corus superstrong,” he says. “As the FAST market becomes more competitive, these local partnerships are going to be key.”
Which means that, if Pluto (and to a lesser extent, CBC News Explore) succeed, Canadians could soon see more FAST services pop up here, including Amazon Freevee and NBC Universal’s Xumo. (Don’t hold out much hope for NBCU’s other big FAST player, Peacock, whose highest-profile programs already have their rights tied up with myriad private Canadian broadcasters.)
“Eight years ago when I was trying to acquire FAST rights to shows for Pluto, everyone was closing the door,” Jollet recalls. “This year, everyone is asking about it. There are now more than 20 FAST services. Netflix is even entering the ad-supported market.”
And with the cost of living going up, “free” can be a rather attractive price.
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