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Is free, ad-supported television the answer to changing viewing habits?

Watching TV has never been pricier. For viewers who are trying to save money on subscription fees — but aren’t paying for cable — another option has emerged in the ever-changing TV landscape: free, ad-supported streaming television (FAST).

FAST channels essentially allow viewers to stream content for free. But as with traditional cable channels, they have periodic ad breaks in between scheduled programming that runs 24/7.

“I think if it’s free, that’s fine. We can take a couple ads,” student Clesha Felicien told CBC News while walking around the Toronto Metropolitan University campus on Tuesday afternoon.

The trend has been active in the U.S. for a few years, but Canadian media companies like CBC News and Corus Entertainment are now entering the FAST market. CBC’s previously announced FAST channel — called CBC News Explore — will debut on Wednesday. On Thursday, Corus Entertainment and its U.S. partner, Paramount, are launching the latter’s popular FAST platform, Pluto TV, in Canada.

Not quite cable, but close

TV viewing habits are changing, and streaming is evolving beyond the what-you-want, when-you-want-it model that consumers have come to know through paid subscription services like Netflix and Disney+.

FAST services let the viewer pick a channel that broadcasts scheduled, streamed content and video to all viewers simultaneously.

As Canadians tighten their belts, “that creates the opportunity for the FAST services to enter the market, in which case you may be able to access some of that content, but withstanding some of the ad revenue that we used to experience with cable,” said Sherena Hussain, the founder of Academic Collaboration Consulting.

Hussain noted that the Canadian market is much smaller than its American counterpart, where major companies have launched FAST services and channels: Paramount has Pluto TV, Fox has Tubi, Amazon has Amazon Freevee and NBC Universal has Xumo.

“There’s a different regulatory framework, which may or may not require some Canadian content to be introduced into some of these streaming services,” she said.

She points to YouTube as a kind of prototype: With “the ads that you are experiencing when you’re watching a video, you are experiencing a version of FAST.”

‘There is subscription fatigue’

CBC News Explore was launched during a brand event at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday. Other announcements included a new show on CBC Radio that follows q, called Commotion, which will be headed by outgoing Pop Chat host Elamin Abdelmahmoud. David Suzuki, who is leaving his longtime role as host of environmental show The Nature of Things, will be succeeded by Sarika Cullis-Suzuki and Anthony Morgan.

Brodie Fenlon, editor-in-chief of CBC News, said that the public broadcaster’s FAST channel is intended to be a reprieve from the fast-paced nature of news. 

While CBC News Network emphasizes breaking stories and hard news, CBC News Explore will dive deeper into current affairs and news topics, allowing for some breathing room. 

“There is subscription fatigue, there are a lot of choices and people are paying for many different services,” Fenlon said.

CBC’s Andrew Chang and Johanna Wagstaffe unveil a new streaming service, called CBC News Explore, during a media event at Massey Hall in Toronto on Wednesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The channel will feature original programming, such as a daily news program called About That. The show is helmed by Andrew Chang, former co-host of The National. There will also be a weekly regional show called This Week in Canada, a climate show hosted by CBC meterologist Johanna Wagstaffe called Planet Wonder and a monthly documentary series called BIG.

“I think this is not so much about doing more but doing differently,” Fenlon said, having noted earlier that the public broadcaster’s television audience — while an important one — sees little growth and is primarily composed of older viewers. 

“We’re experimenting with tone, with style, with format. We actually want to speak to a younger audience, as well, that might consume news differently.”

While older audiences will recall the two-and-a-half-minute breaks of traditional TV, younger generations just aren’t as accustomed to ads, Hussain said. 

“That’s where we’re going to see some of the streaming services begin to evolve in response to consumer choices,” she said — and it remains to be seen how audiences will respond to such services. 

Marrying television and the internet

Tom Ryan, the president and CEO of Paramount streaming and the co-founder and CEO of Pluto TV, said FAST is appealing to consumers during times of economic uncertainty and high inflation.

“There’s so many great things that traditional TV’s done. It hasn’t modernized for the streaming era,” he said. FAST solves that by marrying the best parts of television with the best parts of the internet, he said, and creating what’s called a “lean back” viewing experience.

Pluto TV has over 72 million monthly active users worldwide. Its channels will feature a combination of content from Corus and Paramount, including already-popular TV shows like NCIS, Hawaii Five-0 and Chopped Canada.

Paramount and Corus are launching Paramount’s FAST service, Pluto TV, in Canada this week. Pluto TV has over 72 million monthly active users worldwide. (Pluto TV)

That “could be a good or bad thing” for Canadian creators, said Hussain.

“It may just be an opportunity where you would weigh the ability to access existing content and the comfort that comes with knowing that you’re already getting something that you’ve known before,” she said.

“But on the other side of the equation, these are additional opportunities that would exist to Canadian storytellers or filmmakers, in which case they can access some larger audiences which they would otherwise not have been able to do.”

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