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December 06, 2018

What's Not To "Like"?

We already turn to Facebook for friendship and news. Now with original series — and that seductive social component — the online giant is betting we’ll watch TV there, too.

Daniel Frankel
  • Photoillustration by Todd Reublin
  • Matthew Henick 

  • Michael Rourke

  • Willow Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris in Red Table Talk

    Stan Evans
  • Elizabeth Olsen and Kelly Marie Tran in Sorry for Your Loss

    Facebook Watch

It's a paradox.

The internet has made the TV-watching experience both more isolated and also more social. We binge-watch on laptops, tablets and smartphones, insulated from human interaction by earbuds or giant headphones. Yet we still want to talk about what we're watching with someone — family, friends, coworkers or, best of all, the stars and creators themselves.

The internet has also fueled the rise of recap shows like AMC's Talking Dead and the expansion of fan forums like Comic-Con, where enthusiasts, creatives and talent indulge in increasingly granular discussions of plot twists, character deaths and deeper meanings.

This Chris Hardwick-ization of television — he's the blogger-turned-podcaster and AMC after-show host — is moving to the next level, thanks to Facebook Watch, the social media giant's bid to make TV one more thing we do on its vast platform.

Leveraging the video clips already shared by its 2.23 billion active users worldwide, Facebook launched its ad-supported video-on-demand platform in August 2017.

And why not? These days, video is the ambition of every Silicon Valley FANG company. That's the acronym CNBC host Jim Cramer famously assigned to the market-topping likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (now Alphabet).

These companies have found that re-creating the TV experience is a great way to keep people engaged even longer, so they can watch more advertising and buy more subscriptions or consumer goods — whatever the business model might be. Facebook, says Parks Associates senior analyst Brett Sappington, "is eager to find a service feature that can bolster its user base and give its users a reason to stay engaged."

In both form and business model, Facebook Watch most resembles Google's YouTube, another ad-based platform that blends short-form videos by amateur "makers" with premium shows from Hollywood talent. Facebook Watch's boilerplate revenue-share agreement for content is similar to YouTube's: creators get 55 percent of ad revenue and Facebook keeps 45 percent.

As on YouTube, Watch viewership metrics are right there on the dashboard for the world to see, showing how many times a video has been viewed. The comments are right there too, laid bare to "like," make a grumbly face at, or reply to with actual words.

Facebook calls Watch the platform "where content, community and conversation come together." What sets Watch apart is that it's connected to the biggest social network on earth — a place where people are already sharing opinions and emotions, not just checking email and searching for things.

Not only can users share what they're watching and have it show up on their friends' feeds, they can also see what those friends are viewing. And they can comment directly on the shows' own feeds.

"We are trying to build a new habit for watching video on Facebook that extends past serendipitous discovery," says Matthew Henick, who heads content strategy and investment for the company. "This habit is both intentional and active. We would love for viewers to not only build a connection with the content itself, but also with each other."

"What Facebook Watch can do better than any network is let you engage with other fans," says Raelle Tucker, formerly an executive producer of HBO's True Blood. More recently, Tucker created the Watch series Sacred Lies, a horror drama targeted at young adults. She says Facebook takes the concept of fan interaction "to another level."

Since its premiere this past July, the Blumhouse Television production's first episode has been seen 9.9 million times, according to Facebook's metrics. The episode has drawn more than 60,000 "likes" and reactions and more than 10,000 comments. (Metrics reflect tallies as of press time.)

"I think there's always a little snobbery when talking to the audience," Tucker says. "We [producers] are always afraid they'll criticize us and we'll get into arguments, or people will just be tools. But [Watch] is a community of thousands of people who talk about your show in the most respectful, positive way."

Veteran unscripted producer Michael Rourke shares Tucker's enthusiasm for direct audience connection. He's now an executive producer of Watch's pro-social reality series, Returning the Favor, which features host Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs) as he profiles do-gooder volunteers across the country.

"Our show goes up at midnight on Monday. By 6 a.m. Tuesday when I get up, there are already hundreds of comments," says Rourke, who adds that the show finds most of its subjects through fan interaction. "That level of feedback is unheard of at a network. It takes weeks or months in those places to hear anything."

Facebook doesn't disclose how much it's spending on original shows. But according to the Wall Street Journal, it's shelling out around $1 billion on Watch content in 2018. That's more than the reported hundreds of millions of dollars YouTube has committed to YouTube Premium (formerly known as Red).

But it's still far less than the $13 billion that Netflix is estimated to be spending this year. Indeed, while Netflix lavishes large sums on talent deals and engages in expensive bidding wars for shows, Facebook seems to be taking the bargains it can get, at least for now.

Tucker, for example, optioned Stephanie Oakes's award-winning young-adult novel The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly with her own money, then wrote the pilot script on spec.

"I took it out to every network, studio and production company — everyone I could think of and had worked with," she says. "Everybody said no. They were afraid to try to market a show about a girl with no hands." Not Facebook Watch. The series, called Sacred Lies, launched this past summer.

Meanwhile, playwright and aspiring TV writer Kit Steinkellner shopped her sample script, Widow, a multi-racial drama about a young woman dealing with an unexpected death, all over town before Facebook gave her her big break. Retitled Sorry for Your Loss, it debuted on Watch in September with Elizabeth Olsen in the lead.

Facebook seems to be making safe throws; for example, it's avoiding the higher union rates it would pay to produce hour-long shows. Virtually everything on Watch is a half hour or shorter.

But Watch has been, at least so far, largely on target. For example, Sorry for Your Loss won over TV critics, who collectively gave it an impressive 95 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

On at least one occasion, Facebook Watch has been shrewdly positioned in terms of the zeitgeist. Ball in the Family, a reality show, premiered a year ago, just as series costar Lonzo Ball made his debut with the Los Angeles Lakers. Public outbursts by his bombastic costar father, LaVar Ball, triggered a flurry of awareness.

The Balls have been so newsworthy, in fact, that Kenan Thompson's parody of LaVar Ball has appeared a handful of times on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update." Meanwhile, the premiere episode of Ball in the Family has been viewed 27.4 million times, according to Facebook's stats.

Watch has also scored well with Red Table Talk, a talk show starring Jada Pinkett Smith and members of her family. Its premiere episode has been viewed an impressive 28.7 million times to date.

Those numbers seem great, but Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst for TV[R]EV, asserts that Facebook is "grading its own homework" in its reported viewing metrics — at least to a degree.

He explains that if a show appears on a timeline and the user accidentally clicks on it, that gets counted as a view. The same thing happens if a user intentionally clicks on a show but then stops viewing after 30 seconds.

In August, The Diffusion Group, a boutique firm that specializes in researching over-the-top (OTT) video companies, made headlines when it published damning statistics on Watch. TDG's data suggested that half of U.S. Facebook users had never even heard of Watch, and that only 6 percent of the platform's users regularly watch shows on the platform.

TDG's analysis, however, fails to account for volume. Six percent of 214 million active U.S. Facebook users equals around 13 million regular Watch viewers — an impressive first-year figure for most distributors of OTT video. (Facebook claims regular viewership is slightly higher than that figure.)

In any case, Facebook seems to be leaning into Watch, not retreating. In August, the social media giant announced that it's expanding the platform around the globe.

This past season, Facebook paid a reported $30 million to $35 million to be the exclusive national broadcaster of 25 afternoon Major League Baseball games. In June, the company announced deals with CNN and Fox News to put exclusive news programming on Watch.

And in October, it trumpeted a deal with MTV Studios for three new seasons of the network's groundbreaking series The Real World, to be produced in Mexico, Thailand and the U.S.

There is sound evidence that Facebook can monetize these investments.

With digital video advertising revenue projected to spike 30 percent to around $27.82 billion in the U.S. in 2018, Facebook will account for about a quarter of it, or $6.81 billion, according to statistics released in October by eMarketer. The research company said Facebook controls 87 percent of the video advertising revenue spent on social media networks in the U.S.

Impressive metrics aside, Wolk wonders if Facebook has the focus to build a truly relevant, sustainable platform for premium video, one that has mainstream entertainment impact the way Netflix does.

Google, for example, has made periodic pushes for years now to turn YouTube into a destination for professional-grade original shows on par with those from traditional TV studios. But many analysts say Google is just dabbling in TV — it's too distracted to create an originals platform that could remotely rival those of streaming and traditional media titans.

Facebook, Wolk says, "has spent the past two years veering from one disaster to another." Most notably, it has faced a rash of major PR crises, from accusations that its platform was a tool for Russian hackers in the 2016 presidential election to a recent data breach that exposed the confidential information of 30 million users.

Amid all this chaos, which led Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress in April to explain his platform's policies, the firm has continued to pursue other businesses. In October, for example, it launched Portal, which analysts say is Facebook's way of competing with the Amazon Echo and Google Home Assistant.

"Their minds have to be elsewhere," says Wolk, who wonders why Facebook doesn't do more to promote its original shows.

For example, while viewers of the major networks are showered with promos for new fall series, Facebook users might not find out about Sorry for Your Loss or Red Table Talk unless a friend shares those shows on their timeline. Might Facebook, which critics say knows too much about its users, leverage some of those insights to create the ultimate promotional mechanism?

Curiously, no — at least not yet. "As an open platform, we don't give our originals any special treatment beyond running ads," Henick explains. "It's important to us that any producer's content has an equal chance to succeed on the platform."

This attitude invites further comparisons to YouTube, another open platform that gives only 55 percent of ad revenue to producers — regardless of whether they're teenage video makers living with their parents or seasoned television creatives with long track records.

Wolk wonders: "Do they understand that the shows have to be good and not just well-targeted?"

Like many Google executives, Henick has a background in internet audience development, having previously headed BuzzFeed Studios. Likewise, Ricky Van Veen, head of global creative strategy for Facebook Watch, co-founded CollegeHumor, a popular site that's now part of Barry Diller's IAC.

Watch's series creatives say that working with Facebook's executive team is much like working with any traditional television studio.

"The people I deal with are pretty knowledgeable about television," explains Tucker, who describes Mina Lefevre, Facebook's head of development and programming, as a "champion" of Sacred Lies. Tucker says the only real distinction between Facebook and HBO was that she had to cram what was supposed to be an hour-long show into a half hour — but she says she's grown to appreciate that process.

So maybe a next-gen digital focus doesn't necessarily mean Watch is aiming low? On the contrary, Rourke says it was Van Veen who came up with the idea for Returning the Favor. The exec wanted, Rourke recalls, "a show about people doing remarkable things in their own neighborhood."

Facebook's brass, Rourke insists, "are very much collaborators, on every aspect of the show. It's a two-way loop. And because of that, they know their audience very, very well."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2018

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