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Facebook Watch Chief Talks Early Lessons From Video Push, Unveils Three New Shows

MIAMI — Every original program that lands on the Facebook Watch platform should spark its own Facebook community. That’s the mantra from Ricky Van Veen, who oversees Facebook’s ambitious foray into video in his role as head of global creative strategy for the social media giant.

Van Veen spoke Tuesday at the NATPE conference, detailing strategy and early lessons from Facebook’s fledging effort to become a provider of original entertainment content — or what he called “planned viewing of video.”

“A show should activate a community — a psychographic or demographic or affinity group or a new community formed around a show,” Van Veen said. “The most important aspect of Watch is that social element. … There’s just so much you can do when you have content and conversation happening at scale on the same platform.”

Van Veen unveiled three new series projects, including a new survivalist effort from Bear Grylls, “Bear Grylls: Face the Wild.” Also in the works is the scripted half-hour drama “Sacred Lies” from Blumhouse Television, and the unscripted “Fly Guys,” revolving around movie and TV stunt performers.

Van Veen made it clear Facebook is not rushing into the $10 million-an-episode drama series business. They’re taking a methodical and so far low-key approach to discovering the kinds of content that works best on its air. The big push into video began about four months ago, he said. But Facebook knows its limits.

“We’re not going to win by competing in prestige hourlong dramas. There are many people who do that well,” he said during a Q&A with moderator Rich Greenfield of BTIG Research. “What’s going to differentiate us is that show that uses the social fabric of Facebook.”

Van Veen said the ability for Facebook users to see what shows their friends are watching and receive recommendations is monumental for their effort. You won’t see Facebook spending a lot of money on off-platform marketing any time soon, he said.

“Right now the idea is to do the best shows we can and let the shows be the promotional engine to drive the (Watch) platform,” he said. “The newsfeed may be the best tool for recruiting audiences that’s ever been invented.”

Among other highlights of the session:

Most of Facebook Watch viewing is done via mobile devices. Despite the conventional wisdom, millennials will watch long-form video. For a typical 20-minute episode, the average Watch viewer screens at least 17 minutes, Van Veen said. The Silicon Valley thinking of “shorter is better” when it comes to Internet video “just didn’t pan out,” he said. “One of the most frequent comments (on Facebook Watch series) was ‘I want this show to be longer.’ “

The Facebook Watchlist function “is like a DVR but for Facebook. It allows publishers a more direct relationship with the audience,” Van Veen said. Watchlist gives users a place to aggregate their shows and also receive more deep-dive information and related content.

Facebook Watch does have a few things in common with traditional networks. For one, scheduling matters. “The time of day you publish and the day of week matters. Having that regular cadence allows people to build up a habit,” Van Veen said. “We want people to start using Facebook in a new way.”

“Ball in the Family,” a reality series following basketball entrepreneur LaVar Ball, is one of Watch’s most-watched shows. It drove Facebook to acquire live streaming rights to Lithuanian pro basketball games because members of the Ball family joined the league. The games have drawn upwards of 100,000 viewers at a time via Facebook Live. “The lesson is that you can find different formats to engage an audience outside of the core video on demand,” Van Veen said.

Van Veen cited Mike Rowe (“Returning the Favor”), NFL star Tom Brady (“Tom Versus Time”), and actress Kerry Washington (“Five Points”) as personalities who are expertly leveraging their Facebook followings into viewership for Facebook Watch series. “Facebook allows the conversation to continue after the episode airs,” he said.

Don’t expect to find an old-fashioned procedural drama on Facebook Watch — not enough fan engagement during and after each episode. “We’re not going after content that drives passive viewership,” he said. At the same time, the idea of allowing a “choose your own adventure” function for viewers to craft their own storylines does not seem practical for many shows, he said. “The dangerous place you can get it is where you’re neither fish nor fowl,” he said.

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