Facebook Wants Tons of Original Shows — But It Doesn’t Want to Buy Them

Do you go to Facebook to watch episodic, TV-style shows? Me neither — and that’s what the social giant wants to change with the new Watch video tab, launching this week in a limited test in the U.S.

To start with, Facebook Watch will be stocked with several hundred short-form shows from a slew of partners, including A+E Networks, ATTN:, BuzzFeed’s “The Try Guys,” Condé Nast Entertainment, Group Nine Media, National Geographic, Time Inc., Mashable, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, Tastemade, Quartz, Cheddar, the Atlantic, WNBA and Whistle Sports. It also will include shows from individual creators like Mike Rowe (Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs”), comedian Tonio Skits, author and motivational speaker Gabby Bernstein, and “Nas Daily” travel vlogger Nuseir Yassin. And it will highlight live sports and events, like the Major League Baseball’s free weekly game broadcast on Fridays.

So, that’s a lot already. But Facebook wants even more. Eventually, Watch will open the gates to all comers. Facebook’s aim is to build something like the world’s biggest collection of cable-access shows — you know, like YouTube.

“We are a platform for any creator or show,” said Fidji Simo, Facebook’s VP of product, who oversees all product for video, news and advertising.

For most of the stuff on Watch, Facebook is not paying content providers anything upfront. It will split ad revenue from midroll spots sold by the Facebook sales team; publishers also can make money from branded content in their shows, as long as it squares with Facebook’s policies.

Now, what about the original shows that Facebook has ordered up — and is paying to produce?

It has funded a handful of shows, including Mike Rowe’s feel-good “Returning the Favor”; Condé Nast Entertainment’s “Virtually Dating,” in which couples are set up on blind dates that occur entirely in VR; and reality show “Ball in the Family,” about the family of LaVar Ball, the boastful patriarch of three basketball-playing sons. Facebook’s entertainment team, led by Ricky Van Veen, also is developing a revival of Nicole Byer’s MTV scripted series “Loosely Exactly Nicole” and reality-competition series “Last State Standing,” from the producers of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”

But that effort is just to jump-start Facebook Watch, and to provide real examples of what’s possible on the platform, according to Simo. “The main reason we are funding them is to seed the ecosystem,” she said. “The goal long term is absolutely that the ecosystem will be creating these shows.”

In Silicon Valley jargon, buying original content doesn’t “scale.” (As Netflix has demonstrated, it’s super-expensive.) Facebook has amassed 2 billion monthly users and reaps billions in profits without really spending a penny on content. Why would it change that with video? That’s especially true given that hundreds of premium content producers are already clamoring to have their shows featured on Facebook Watch so they can tap into its massive distribution potential.

The main driver for Facebook’s Watch is to drive up watch time of longer-form content — and to give the company more TV-like ad inventory to take to Madison Avenue.

Facebook video consumption has exploded in the last two years, but the main way people find that content is through Newsfeed. That’s not conducive to building an audience for episodic series, Simo said: “We found people want a place where they can go and just watch videos.”

Again, that’s designed to solve Facebook’s problem relative to YouTube, which from the get-go has been organized around video channels and serialized content presentation. Facebook’s strategy here, it’s worth noting, diverges from Snap, which has opened Snapchat Discover to only a select group of handpicked media partners. Facebook wants thousands of shows, and it’s OK with anything (within the scope of its policies) as long as it can connect with a highly engaged fanbase.

Shows featured in Watch will have their own special-purpose Facebook pages. The content displayed in the Watch menu will be personalized, based on an individual user’s likes, what’s trending, and what their friends are watching. You’ll be able to “follow” shows to save them to a watchlist and get notified when there are new episodes.

At first, Facebook Watch will be available to a few million U.S. users during an indeterminate test period (what the company calls a “1% test”).

One of the main things Simo and her team are looking for is how people engage with shows on Facebook in comments, reactions and shares. “We’ve learned from [Facebook Live video] about what happens when you bring video plus communities together,” she said. “This magic stuff happens when you can see audiences reacting and you can see people interact with each other.”

Facebook doesn’t have a firm timeline about when Watch will become more widely available beyond the U.S. test group or initial content partners. “At Facebook we always test, iterate and find out what works,” Simo said.

The Watch tab is being added to Facebook’s mobile apps, as well as the service’s desktop web platform and on Facebook connected-TV apps for Apple TV, Samsung Smart TVs, Amazon Fire, and Android TV devices. Simo expects most shows on Facebook Watch to be viewed on smartphones, as the vast majority of video on the platform is consumed today, but she does expect people to watch Shows on TV more than other FB video.

As for whether Facebook might introduce a paywall for video — to let content creators offer paid subscriptions a la Netflix — Simo said that’s “not on the road map at all for now.”

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • Venn co-founders

    VENN Raises $17 Million to Launch a Cheddar-like TV Network for Gaming

    Video game industry veterans Ariel Horn and Ben Kusin have raised a massive $17 million seed funding round to launch a new gaming-focused TV network called VENN. Short for Video Game Entertainment and News Network, VENN wants to mix esports with Twitch-style video game streaming and other gaming-related entertainment content when it launches in 2020. [...]

  • Amazon Music

    Amazon Music Unveils HD: the ‘Highest Quality Audio’ for Streaming

    Amazon Music today became the first of the three major streaming services to offer high-definition sound with the launch of Amazon Music HD. According to the announcement, the service offers a new tier of high quality, lossless audio with more than 50 million songs in High Definition, and millions of songs in Ultra High Definition, which it claims [...]

  • United Talent Agency Reveals New Logo

    UTA Unveils New Logo, Corporate Image

    UTA raised the curtain Monday on a new corporate logo. The three-dimensional image is meant to emphasize the talent agency’s focus on uniting ideas, opportunities and talent. Building signage with the new logo will go up next month at UTA’s headquarters in Beverly Hills. “Our new identity captures the multiple facets and intersections of our [...]

  • Altice One set-top

    Amazon Prime Video Coming to Altice's Optimum, Suddenlink Cable Services

    Altice USA plans to launch Amazon Prime Video for Optimum and Suddenlink cable customers nationwide in the next few months, under a pact announced Monday. Altice is the third pay-TV operator in the U.S. with a distribution deal for Amazon Prime Video, after Comcast and Cox Communications. The cable operator is adding Prime Video to [...]

  • youtube leanback screenshot

    YouTube to Shut Down Leanback Web TV Interface on October 2

    YouTube is getting ready to retire its TV-optimized browser interface, also known as YouTube Leanback, on October 2, Variety has learned. The move comes as YouTube is putting a bigger emphasis on its native TV apps, but also represents a blow to users who directly connected their PCs to their TVs. YouTube started to inform [...]

  • Terminator: Dark Fate

    Paramount & Adobe Launch ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Trailer Remix Contest

    Adobe has teamed up with Paramount Pictures to launch a remix contest for the trailer of “Terminator: Dark Fate,” which is set to debut in theaters November 1. The winner of the contest will get $10,000 as well as a one-year Adobe Creative Cloud membership and a private screening of the movie for up to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content