A request made for years by service members and commanders is finally happening — American Forces Network has launched an app that offers video on demand and livestreaming services.
The new app, called AFN Now, launched in early November. As more service members consume their programming via apps, Defense Media Activity officials said it just made sense to get with the times.
"If we want to give our commanders the appropriate space where the audience is, we have to be where the audience is," Michael Drumheller, the AFN Broadcast Center director, said. "This is an option that audience members have asked for in the past, and we're just now able to deliver."
So, what makes this app stand out from others, aside from being free to eligible downloaders? Officials say the content includes short breaks for important command information — not commercials.
"[Users] can already get their own music. They can already get their own entertainment, but they can't get information on their careers. They can't get information on their local community, and that is what we deliver that nobody else can," Erik Brazones, an AFN Operations Policy officer, said.
As the app grows, developers plan to dynamically tailor ads to specific audiences to better serve them. For instance, if there were to be a major change to the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Corps, that information could be broadcast specifically to Air Force senior NCOs who've registered on the app. Those who aren't Air Force NCOs wouldn't see that message because it doesn't pertain to them.
"It'll give them situational awareness, and that is where we want this app to go. We want it to be an indispensable information source for them," Brazones said. "We want to make sure that the information we deliver is just as important and just as beneficial as the entertainment."
Another plus is that the app will give the service a better idea of what people are watching.
"[Our programming] is based on the current Nielsen ratings in the United States in our demographic, but if we have better information about what people are watching in volume — as we'll get through AFN Now — we'll be able to tweak that to give people what they want," Drumheller said.
Like many other streaming services, the app has news, sports, prime-time scripted content, late-night and daytime shows and movies. Officials said overseas video programming rights are tightly controlled, so AFN Now will have about 90-95% of the content that's offered on its satellite service. It will be presented in what they call a "rolling five" type of format.
"It's a rolling kind of catch-up service," Kareem Lowe, the AFN Broadcast Center's director of television, said. "Meaning episodes one through five — once episode six premieres, episode one will drop off."
Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Hockey League, NASCAR and IndyCar programming is available for on-demand viewing. Lowe said the app is hoping to get the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Ultimate Fighting Championship on board eventually.
Like other AFN services, only service members, their families and retirees living overseas can access AFN Now. Defense officials said the entertainment industry has been very generous with its support of AFN since World War II, but the Defense Department has to do its part to make sure only eligible folks have access to the content.
"Media is an expensive proposition … so we need to make sure that we're not taking customers away from them," Brazones said of the entertainment industry. "We want to make sure that we are supporting our entertainment partners just as fervently as they're supporting us, and we do that by making sure that we restrict access just to the DOD audience."
Eligible customers can create a free account that's authenticated the same way many other DOD services are set up, including the decoders for AFN's satellite service.
"They will enter their identification or their data into our website, and that is then compared against the Defense Enrollment Eligibility and Reporting System, DEERS," Brazones said. Parents will be able to approve their children's ability to have an account this way, too.
The app, which took three years to develop, was tested extensively throughout the Pacific theater earlier this fall. Developers listened to the audience's feedback and used it to further refine the app's performance and accessibility.
The app ties into AFN's satellite service and its radio app, AFN Go, which was rolled out in 2012 as AFN 360 but was rebranded in March after several audience-suggested improvements were made. On-demand audio and a podcast feature were added to AFN Go this fall, as well.
AFN Now is downloadable via Apple, Google, gaming devices and smart TVs.
(This article was updated Nov. 10, 2022.)