Now comes the real test: Facebook is lighting up a major new phase in its strategy to train users that it’s a place to watch a variety of TV-like entertainment.
Starting Thursday, Facebook’s Watch feature — essentially a programming guide to episodic shows hosted on the social platform — will become broadly available to users in the U.S., after a three-week limited beta run.
The Watch guide is stocked with several hundred shows, a mélange of scripted, reality, documentary and sports content of varying lengths from both traditional media companies and individual digital creators. (Here’s a select list of shows currently in Watch or coming soon.) The new Watch tab isn’t the only way to access the series: They’re also available through Facebook’s new “Show Pages,” which provide features specifically for episodic video content.
So, what’s playing on Facebook? The lineup includes a feel-good reality series from Mike Rowe, in which he road-trips across the country to shine a light on local heroes; Tastemade’s “Kitchen Little,” featuring kids relaying recipe steps to pro chefs trying to complete the dish; A&E’s couples-prank show “Bae or Bail”; a docu-series based on the Humans of New York photo blog; free weekly Major League Baseball broadcasts; and a show starring a premature baby hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo.
That’s just a smattering of the series on Facebook already — and VP of partnerships Dan Rose is counting on the Watch platform to quickly amass thousands of other new shows.
“Over time, this will be completely open,” he said. “The teenager in her garage will be able to participate in this.”
Facebook has paid for some of the shows, like Rowe’s “Returning the Favor”; Refinery29’s “Strangers” millennial dramedy about sexual identity; and “Ball in the Family,” a reality series about LaVar Ball’s would-be basketball family dynasty. But Rose reiterated that Facebook’s long-term strategy is not to acquire or produce content; rather, the reason for its initial funding of the shows is to demonstrate to “the larger ecosystem what’s possible.”
“Obviously, creating premium episodic content is expensive,” Rose said. “Until we have a large enough audience – so the advertising revenue can cover the cost of creative — we helped fund some of them, so people see something when they go to Watch.”
The shows’ mix of genres and formats might make them seem like a scattershot lot targeted at different niche audiences, but Rose said there’s a method to the madness. Specifically, he said, all of the series Facebook selected for Watch have a “community” element that lend themselves to fostering discussion and sharing. That may be. But in truth, any programming that can attract a loyal audience will have those same hallmarks — whether that’s on Facebook, television or elsewhere. Meanwhile, some of the Facebook shows seem to be blatantly heartstring-tugging fare rigged for viral sharing, like the Dodo’s “Comeback Kids: Animal Edition,” in which disabled animals literally get on their feet thanks to human helpers.
With the Watch push, Facebook is certainly trying to vie with YouTube as a home for longer-form video. And Facebook is hoping to grab a bigger chunk of money from advertisers’ TV budgets, by steering users toward content with more 15-second ad-break opportunities. It’s worth noting that in addition to smartphones and desktops, Watch is available on several connected-TV platforms: Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Samsung Smart TV.
The question remains, though, whether Facebook users en masse will cozy up to the Watch concept and actually get hooked on the shows, when for years they’ve mainly consumed smaller bursts of content.
Facebook’s partners, while acknowledging that Watch is still in an experimental stage, are optimistic the company will teach its 2 billion-plus users where to find longer video content so their shows get exposed to bigger audiences.
“Everyone told me no one would watch long-form content on Facebook,” said Amy Emmerich, Refinery29’s chief content officer. When the digital-media firm launch its ShatterBox Anthology series of women-directed short films on Facebook, “the engagement was way more than expected.”
Facebook’s Watch, by creating a destination for viewers intending to consume video, should only spur more demand for lean-back entertainment, she said. “It’s about behavior – Facebook is helping its users create new behaviors,” said Emmerich, adding, “For us, as a partner for Facebook, it’s good to be one of the first ones in.”
To Mike Rowe, Facebook has already proven itself as a platform for quickly and easily reaching millions of viewers with authentic, engaging content. Rowe has 4.9 million fans on Facebook, known for his work on television shows including Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and “Deadliest Catch” and CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”
Since it went up on Facebook Aug. 28, the first episode of “Returning the Favor” has garnered 2.5 million views, even before the broad U.S. launch of Watch. “I’ve made a lot TV over the years, and lately I’ve made more video at my kitchen table – it’s shocking how many people I can reach without any overhead,” said Rowe. He hastens to add, however, that “Returning the Favor” is a “full-fledged production” in collaboration with Hudsun Media.
Rowe said the concept he pitched to Facebook for “Returning the Favor” was, “given the state of the country, I wanted to do something that proves not everybody in America is a schmuck.” That premise, Rowe believes, would not work on broadcast or cable TV because traditional networks would render it inauthentic. “I know what it looks like when TV does this show – it looks like ‘Extreme Makeover’ or ‘Undercover Boss,'” he said. “And with all due respect, I don’t want to do that kind of show.”
Tastemade, the digital-native food network, has previously released 5-12 minute shows on Facebook. But until now, only 45- to 90-second programming “has resonated on Facebook,” said Oren Katzeff, Tastemade’s head of programming. “What’s exciting about Watch is, Facebook is promoting longer-form programming.”
Conde Nast Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff is hopeful its “Virtually Dating” VR blind-date show finds an audience on Facebook. “We felt that show could work in linear television – but we showed it to Facebook because we felt they would have an engaged viewership,” she said.
CNE also has created Watch show pages for three older series that weren’t previously distributed on Facebook: Bon Appetit’s “It’s Alive with Brad Leone”; Wired’s “Autocomplete Interview”; and Allure’s “Dispelling Beauty Myths.” That, Ostroff said, is in order to analyze how Facebook users discover and watch different kinds of shows through the new Watch video feature.
As with some of its existing video-content partners, Facebook will share ad revenue from the ads it sells for the shows in Watch with 55% going to the creator or publisher. However, the company says it’s still in the early days on delivering midroll ad breaks. Facebook has been testing in-stream ads over the past few months with a limited set of publishing partners, and expects to widen out the program over time. Partners also can monetize their shows through sponsorships, using Facebook’s branded-content tag.
Initially, Watch has started with a limited group of publishers and creators in the U.S. Facebook is accepting proposals for other shows to be added to the queue, at this link.
“By the end of this week, hundreds of shows will be on Watch — then thousands will blossom really soon,” said Rose. But the jury’s still out on how big Facebook’s entertainment play might become.