Variety’s TV Critics Discuss the Rollout of Facebook’s Watch, the Social Media Giant’s Foray Into Digital Content

Facebook Watch

This past week, Facebook rolled out Watch, a new platform promoting a lineup of TV shows ranging from reality fare like “Returning the Favor” and “Ball in the Family” to the scripted comedy “Strangers.” Another high-profile series is “Humans of New York,” which comes from the creator of the popular website and books. In all likelihood, Facebook’s Watch we see today is going to undergo changes as the company responds to how its users interact with this new platform. But given the company’s big push behind Watch — a rollout which included several new series and a new vertical for Facebook users — Variety’s TV critics discuss the launch of the platform and their thoughts on Facebook’s entry into TV.

Maureen Ryan: So after spending a good chunk of time poking around Facebook’s TV — or TV-ish — programming, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by what the platform has rolled out. There’s been a lot of video on Facebook for some time, obviously — most of it involving cute kids dancing at weddings, at least as far as my feed is concerned. But if I had to rate what Facebook is doing now in the realm of longer programming (it actually has a category tagged “10 minutes or more”), my overall thought would be that, while occasionally entertaining, it all feels a bit inessential. The scripted series “Strangers” reminds me of the kind of well-intentioned but uneven Web series that were percolating around a few years ago, and the reality fare is kind of a combination of what you’d find on HGTV, A&E and several other basic cable channels. “Humans of New York” has its moments, but… is your aunt going to post that in her timeline, or stick with wedding videos?

Sonia Saraiya: I similarly am a bit flummoxed by Facebook’s Watch. Nearly every element of the rollout has been confusing — from the sheer number of proposed series to their simultaneous launch, as if what Facebook users really needed was 40 more shows to keep track of. I don’t know why Facebook would launch what is essentially a sub-par cable channel, padded out with dozens of cost-effective unscripted series, when that’s an arena simply glutted with content — from actual reality TV (on the networks you name, Mo) to the short video content produced by small-time social media hustlers on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). Perhaps YouTube really needed a competitor — but given that YouTube, despite its massive volume, is still finessing its strategy for breaking its content into the mainstream, Facebook jumping in feels like a whole lot of nothing that we didn’t ask for in the first place.

At the same time, I assume the real viewer base for Facebook Watch will be users who do not have some other way of finding original content online. And for them, there are a couple of offerings that seem both smart and appealing. MLB, for example, will broadcast 20 free games per season on Facebook Watch, and extant cable networks like A&E and Animal Planet are hosting exclusive-to-Facebook mini-shows on Watch. (A&E’s “Bae or Bail,” a four-and-a-half minute video about pranks at funerals, is as of Tuesday Watch’s top-performing video.) PBS’ “Frontline” is free anyway, but the award-winning documentary series has created an investigative series with minutes-long episodes that are a bit more friendly to the online viewing experience. (But not that much more friendly: “Frontline” is reliably incisive, but the premiere episode, at a little over nine minutes long, has about 5,000 views.)

And though it’s great, in theory, that Facebook’s Watch can provide the TV viewing experience for users who don’t have that option elsewhere — it’s mostly not great TV. Most of these shows appear to have been conjured into existence in order to make something, anything worth watching on the platform; there’s not much here that screams of a coherent vision that desperately wanted to make it to the screen. Most of it is the type of unscripted filler material that clogs the backchannels of our cable packages and/or our “recommended” YouTube videos — BuzzFeed’s “Try Guys” trying some new stuff, kids learning how to cook, Mike Rowe looking for inspirational people, a travel-food series about cheese, a bunch of stuff about different cute or interesting animals. It’s like Watch is trying to reverse-engineer what already surfaced organically on these channels in order to make money on them. And though sometimes the only thing that hits the spot is a funny hippo video or a cooking tutorial, these are not exactly the stuff of our televised dreams.

Ryan: I’d like to launch into a detailed defense of the hourlong video I watched of bobcats at play — but I will not. What I will note is that the Watch pages are so poorly laid out that video footage of animals frolicking is next to short comedic bits and scripted content that comes from all over (and trying to find any these things easily on my phone was a frustrating experience, and that seems like a problem).

In the big picture, I agree with you completely. I see little evidence of a coherent strategy at work. Watch is a mishmash of content — some pre-existing, some new, some good, some very dumb, a lot that is barely watchable — that was slapped together and given the Watch label. And to an extent, that’s fine! That’s really what Facebook is, in a lot of ways — your college roommate’s travel photos next to a political rant from a former colleague, all of which co-exists with cute critter videos and updates on a cousin’s graduation ceremony. Facebook has always been this weird stew of stuff — that’s really the nature of social media.

And I’m willing to entertain that Facebook is working within a different set of parameters than the one we’re used to. In the TV realm, the way it usually goes is like this: A network or streaming platform makes a huge play to make noise. There are dozens of examples, from Netflix giving David Fincher a ton of money to make “House of Cards” to AMC delivering the double whammy of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” to HBO — already a premiere player in the TV game — upping the ante by turning “Game of Thrones” into a weekly spectacle. Silicon Valley can afford to play a longer and messier game, rolling out whatever they want whenever they want.

But so far, I don’t see a lot of TV content that is likely to increase the time that an average Facebook user spends on the site. Even the stuff that’s not for me (i.e., anything by Ray William Johnson or Laura Clery) — well, that stuff was going to get watched anyway, with or without the Watch label. With or without Facebook, frankly.  

So what about the newer shows — content that is not merely smart brand extensions? Rowe’s upbeat show, “Returning the Favor,” has an engaging looseness (I enjoyed how, within the course of a few different episodes, he commented upon reality TV tropes that both he and the viewer are probably deeply familiar with). And I know nothing about sports, but “Ball in the Family” had a professional look and feel to it. That said, there was an odd moment in Rowe’s “Returning the Favor” that showed me more than I wanted to see of the host’s flirting game, and “Ball” seemed too willing to hype the star family’s clothing line and extremely unwilling to delve all that far into whether the father, LaVar Ball, pushes his three baller sons too hard.

Saraiya: That makes sense, because “Ball in the Family” is produced by Bunim/Murray Productions — and it looks it. It’s entirely indistinguishable from a marginal unscripted show on cable. And yet especially because it’s being touted as one of the flagships of Facebook’s Watch — and has proven to be a relatively popular debut — I struggled with that one. Maybe that’s because it’s even more shamelessly about brand leveraging than most unscripted content already is; a lopsided soap opera that self-servingly lionizes the NBA.

I liked Refinery29’s “Strangers” more — that’s a series from director Mia Lidofsky, starring the lovely Zoë Chao as a newly single Airbnb host. It premiered at Sundance and has some indie credibility: Actors like Jemima Kirke, Breeda Wool, and Shiri Appleby drop by as guests, and Meredith Hagner (who was in the similarly indie “Search Party”) is Chao’s best friend. The premise, for viewers who don’t get premium cable or subscribe to 12 different streaming services, is refreshingly modern: Chao’s lead Isobel has just been dumped, because she cheated on her boyfriend with a woman. In this time of sexual confusion and dire financial straits, a rotating array of strangers provide her with a kind of millennial set of mirrors to examine of her own life — which is, regardless of quality, a perfect premise for a show debuting exclusively on a voyeuristic social media platform.

But what I noted about “Strangers” is how, like most web series, it could have benefited from that extra polish that comes with the rigor of a smart, savvy network. While it’s easier than ever to publish “serialized content,” it’s still hard to make good TV. The investment in Facebook’s Watch has privileged expanding a platform, but the onus of quality appears to be left entirely to the creators, with all of the freedoms and limitations that implies. I’m echoing a really smart point you made above: The stuff that’s getting watched was already going to get watched. Meanwhile, the stuff on the bubble — those talented creators at the beginnings of their careers — aren’t really being served by this amorphous platform. It would be great to see a Watch that invested a bit more in quality than in simply quantity.

Ryan: Given that the short videos are glib and forgettable, and the longer fare is glib and formulaic and not all that memorable, what’s the play here? Aside from surfacing some of the most viral stuff more efficiently, I’m not sure what Watch really offers that we haven’t seen before.