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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.”

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