Fast-forward to the new service that streamers are rushing to join

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The familiar formula of television content shown with adverts is staging a comeback

The US programme Judge Judy is helping to lead a brand of free, advertising-supported streaming services that is attracting a sharp rise in revenuesSONJA FLEMMING/GETTY IMAGES

Are the credits rolling on the streaming wars? You might think so if you are looking squarely at the fortunes of some of the biggest players — Netflix, the sector’s pioneer, is in decline; Disney+, its top challenger, is battling to meet lofty expansion targets; and CNN+, the newest deep-pocketed platform, was shelved weeks after its launch — but in one corner of the market, operators claim to be enjoying “nosebleed growth”.

They also appear to be turning conventional wisdom on its head. In contrast with a television future dominated by viewing on demand, based on subscriptions and without commercial breaks, some of the biggest names in American media are jostling to offer an altogether different — albeit familiar — proposition: linear content that’s free to watch, alongside adverts.

Welcome to the world of “Fast” streaming — free, advertising-supported telly — where you won’t find the latest mega-budget shows such as The Crown but Cruising with Jane McDonald and the courtroom of Judge Judy. According to Tom Ryan, a co-founder of Pluto TV, one of the leading platforms in this space: “This is a hyper-growth category of streaming.” In the United States alone, nScreenMedia, a research group, estimates that revenue generated by such online linear services is set to almost double from $2.1 billion last year to $4.1 billion next.

Pluto was bought by Viacom, the owner of Channel 5 and MTV that later merged with CBS and became Paramount Global, for $340 million in 2019. The service now generates annual revenue of more than $1 billion, with nearly 68 million monthly active users. It is in two dozen markets and is being launched in Sweden, Denmark and Norway this week.

Entertainment heavyweights are racing to grab a slice of the pie. Amazon, having poured billions of dollars into its Prime Video subscription platform, recently rebranded its no-fee IMDb TV strand to Freevee, with original series including Bosch: Legacy and Alex Rider. Two years ago Fox Corporation acquired Tubi for $440 million. The service, which is not available in Britain at present, has 51 million monthly active users. Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox, is executive chairman of News Corporation, ultimate owner of The Times and The Sunday Times.

“It’s only going to go up from here,” Ryan Pirozzi, co-head of programming at Freevee, predicted. “We’re not surprised to see other companies leaning into this space.”

Connected TV sets have altered habits, enabling viewers to flick through apps in much the same way they once hopped between BBC and ITV. Alongside digital libraries, Fast operators boast live, curated streams — channels, if you will — often catered to a specific niche. Pluto has one dedicated to the Channel 5 documentary series GPs: Behind Closed Doors, for example, while Freevee has another pinned around Judy Sheindlin, the television personality and former family court judge.

Amazon has brought original series including Bosch: Legacy to its no-fee service

Amazon has brought original series including Bosch: Legacy to its no-fee service

Unlike America, free streaming is already popular in Britain, where television’s established beasts have spent years building up BBC iPlayer, All 4 and ITV Hub, set to soon become ITVX as part of an expensive relaunch. Olivier Jollet, who leads Pluto’s international division, recalled how those running the venture were “not sure whether there was a market for us” in the UK; in the event, they had found robust demand for “well-curated channels”.

Lauren Anderson, Freevee’s co-head of programming, acknowledged it was revisiting the “original foundations of TV”, but asserted that it also offered convenience with on-demand content. “We’ve tried to dispel the notion that ads are, by definition, a bad thing,” Pirozzi added.

Until recently, this remained a subject of debate. Now Netflix, which not long ago hailed a lack of ads as central to its appeal, is preparing to incorporate them in cheaper subscriptions to revive growth. Disney+ may pip it to the post.

Tom Harrington, head of television at Enders Analysis, said that Fast channels amounted to a “pretty sound strategy for content companies to grab some incremental revenue”, without enduring the fees attached to traditional broadcasting. Though they remained “tiny” in terms of viewing and engagement, they were “certainly a buzzy area of the market”.

Efforts to lift free streaming audiences have breathed new life into an old debate, too: whether platforms need new, exclusive titles to attract and retain viewers. With the caveat “never say never”, Pluto does not see originals as a “necessary” to grow; Freevee, in contrast, intends to enlarge its original slate by 70 per cent this year.

And these operations serve more than one purpose. Freevee contributes to Amazon’s rising ad sales and bolsters interest in Prime Video. Pluto diversifies Paramount’s offer to advertisers and acts as a shop window for Paramount+, the paid-for platform, which is being launched in Britain next month; Ryan, who oversees both, argued that the combination was as compatible as “chocolate and peanut butter”.

Viewers are forced to confront an increasingly long list of services vying for their attention, however, and this corner of the streaming market is by no means above the throng. ITV, facing intense competition from across the pond, says it is “on track” to launch ITVX — complete with 20 Fast streams, focused on shows including The Chase and Hell’s Kitchen US — later this year.

Callum Jones, US Business Correspondent, The Times