Do You Want It FAST, or Good?

The FAST channel market is living up to its name and growing at an explosive rate, but quality, affordable translation may have trouble keeping up

Checklist for my new FAST streaming channel: diverse content? Done. Advertiser support? Done. A plan for accurate, quality translation? Hmm, well, maybe no one will notice.

We’re all familiar with the largest streaming services: Netflix, Amazon, Disney+/Hulu, and HBO Max. But you’ve likely seen less familiar names in your smart TV’s menu of apps: Pluto, Tubi, Xumo, FreeVee, Peacock, or IMDb TV. Plus, there are hundreds of other channels dedicated to mainstream programming, niche, or“sub-genre” content covering food, travel, music, motorcycles, viral videos, and documentaries.

Where these channels differ from the SVOD players (Subscription Video on Demand), is that FAST channels offer the user-friendly, immediate gratification-focused experience of streaming TV but without a monthly subscription fee. Content is available for free with scheduled ad breaks during programs.

Between January and June 2022 – only six months – the number of FAST channels available across major platforms grew by 213 channels, a 17% growth rate, according to research from Variety Intelligence Platform.

All signs point to this growth continuing unabated, with new entries coming online regularly. One high-profile example, according to Variety, is FilmRise, the New York-based film and television studio and streaming service, partnering with LG Channels+ and LG Electronics’ FAST and AVOD service. There are a myriad of other new channels popping up, with partnership ties to major studios, professional sports leagues, and other top-flight entertainment entities. At the same time newcomers are emerging, the current crop of FAST channels is also expanding their offerings.

There is a clear reason for this growth rate. Unlike traditional TV channels, FAST channels are inexpensive and easy to manage. Also, most broadcast channels are controlled by a small number of operators. FAST avoids this constrictive barrier and lowers the cost of content delivery using the open internet and allowing new business models to grow nearly unchecked.

Advertisers are drawn to the FAST model since it expands their audience exponentially beyond the limited and aging linear TV viewers.

The Language of FAST

There are two uncontestable similarities between working on a set to capture and create content and working in the post-editing suite to finalize and deliver it: time and money are equally important as story and quality.

I recently read an interesting article about a major Hollywood film that, due to ravenous worldwide demand, had to be dubbed in 25 languages and  subtitled into 19 more for a total of 44 unique language versions, not including English.

Even more interesting? This article wasn’t based on some hot-off-the-press industry report. It was from 2007.

So, this is hardly a new topic, just one the global entertainment market continues to struggle with how to address. Only now, instead of being limited to Hollywood and TV releases, the field has broadened to include new players, technologies, and rules.

There are several market factors currently at play that, when combined, exert significant pressure on the localization industry, further substantiating the need to embrace advanced technologies, such as those offered by XL8.

We’ve already shown how and why FAST is the fastest-growing segment of digital home entertainment, primarily due to the exploding worldwide demand for content.

The keyword there is “worldwide.” The last two years have seen a boom in new linear channels, mostly based in the United States. These channels distribute a large volume of domestic catalog and new release domestic content, as well as a mix of studio and independent titles.

Now the well is running dry on monetizing domestic catalogs. Advertising opportunities are still strong but not as plentiful, and viewers are simply growing tired of watching overly familiar programming. SVOD and FAST platforms are looking for international, non-English language content.

When we were all home during the pandemic, the major SVOD platforms proved that there was a hunger for original international language content. Who knew that Turkey makes great telenovelas that rival those made in Mexico or that Korea produces exciting "must-see" action and sci-fi content? Now the rush is on to license foreign content and bring that into the domestic FAST market.

According to Variety’s VIP research platform, Spanish-language FAST channels increased by 21% in the early months of 2022 alone, and one in five channels are Spanish language.

In the summer of 2022, streaming technology company Wurl launched Amogo Networx’s FAST service to be offered in six languages and available in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America on various connected TV platforms.

In December 2022, FAST Channels TV announced the expansion of its global footprint to include17 African, 20 Indian, and 18 Latin American channels containing localized content, in addition to the 120+ English language channels currently available.

Challenges for Translation

We could likely spend a whole blog listing the launch plans of foreign language FAST channels, but the point is clear: translation is in demand. The challenge is that there are simply not enough qualified linguists and voice/dubbing artists to handle both the demand and the downward cost pressures associated with licensing content into the FAST market, where content owners are typically paid only on advertising revenue share splits.

Further, the traditional LSP industry is based on a long-standing 80/20 model where 80% of localization is from original English content into other languages. The industry is simply not equipped for the quick-change required to handle a substantially greater amount of content going from other languages into English, or from one foreign language directly into another foreign language.

There might be plenty of linguists who can translate between Turkish and English; but, there aren’t many who can translate directly and accurately at a low cost from Turkish to Spanish, where Mexico and the Spanish-speaking U.S. population are the primary target of the Turkish Telenovelas.

In cases like these, English is typically used as a "pivot" language, but this takes time and extra money, not to mention the potential degradation in quality created by each translation pass.

Another main challenge is ROI. Many FAST channels operate in a start-up mentality of high reward balanced against the high risk of translating content that might actually do well in other countries, but it’s still not a certainty. It's expensive for them to go the usual LSP route, and they can't take those chances because they don't have the margins or the revenue. Yes, you’ll get new life out of your catalog, but you never know for sure what will resonate with different audiences and different cultures.

Translation Training

That’s where one of the key benefits of using machine translation comes into play. It lowers your translation costs substantially to much less than $500 depending on what you need to do and how many countries you want to reach. But audiences still want near 100 percent quality with entertainment content.

While the convergence of the above factors creates massive new opportunities for XL8's AI machine translation and synthesized dubbing, the impact to us is that we now have to quickly train our AI engines to handle language pairs that either haven't existed or increase the quality levels in some language pairs that hadn't previously warranted the attention.

To create language pairs effectively, we need about a million sentences, but even that only gets you to a certain level of quality. Through our network of LSPs, we continually use data from human post-editing to train our engines by comparing the final output to the original machine output and ingesting the feedback for training and continuous improvement..

The main challenge is that we may not get hand-curated data for some of the more obscure pairs which impacts our ability to train and learn as effectively.

Starting in January, our MediaCAT platform will host a new feature, which allows language professionals, distributors, or content owners to set up workspaces to invite employees or third parties to work on projects and conduct post-editing within the platform. This opens up the translation workflow process to a much wider, and potentially more inexpensive, pool of talent to help translate content for different markets.

We value the post-editing process because there's an important creative element to subtitling. Sometimes dialogue can't be done “word for word” because it won’t translate properly, may come across as offensive in another language, or doesn’t translate well for hyper-localized content that must appeal to different dialects within a region. That’s why the right combination of human capabilities and machine translation will always be so important.

This spirit of friendly collaboration between localization service providers and technology providers like XL8 benefits the growth of the industry as a whole, and that's precisely what we've built our company to do. We encourage content professionals to think of translation and subtitling as an integral production element where creative outcomes are better the earlier localization is introduced into production and post-production workflows.

Which brings me to one final point: remember that article I mentioned from 2007? It reported that “too often, subtitling is not thought of as an important phase of post-production and is done at the last second, and without the appropriate devotion of resources and attention.”

Let’s agree that 2023 is the year we shift the paradigm and not treat localization as an afterthought!

Written By Joshua Pine at XL8 Inc.

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