Fiona the hippo has a TV show. You won’t find it onAnimal Planet, and don’t bother searching for it on Netflix. The seven-episode (plus a Christmas special) series is one of the most popular series on Facebook Watch.
What is Facebook Watch? To most users, it’s that TV-shaped icon in the menu at the bottom of the app. In reality, it’s Facebook’s big video play, an attempt to cultivate original programming exclusive to the social network, and maybe take a bite out of Netflix, YouTube, and even TV while doing so.
In a conversation with Mashable, one partner jokingly — but tellingly — called the new-ish Facebook video platform “Un-Watch-able,” seemingly a reference to poor viewership figures. But while some publishers have struggled to see traction in their video series, others like Cincinnati Zoo’s The Fiona Show have attracted millions of viewers since Watch’s debut at the end of summer 2017.
“Facebook approached us about creating a show about Fiona,” said the Zoo’s communications director Michelle Curley. “We produced all of it in-house with a very small team, probably underestimating how much work that would be!”
And yet, the Zoo is premiering Season 2 on Jan. 24 (Fiona’s 1st birthday).
To Mark Zuckerberg & Co., that news is bliss. Fiona is a case study for an exclusive show that attracted an engaged audience right when Watch launched in September, with hundreds of partners, including Mashable. Both Facebook and the Zoo can benefit from that user engagement and that ad revenue.
Despite Facebook’s announcement last week that it would demote news posts from publishers and instead boost posts from friends, those changes are restricted to the News Feed. Facebook isn’t fully abandoning video or publishers (at least not yet). With Watch, Facebook is betting — and financially investing — on video series, not only from zoos but also from entertainment studios and notable Hollywood producers. Next month, the effort is about to get serious with the launch of Kerry Washington’s Five Points.
What to Watch?
Watch is not an effort to take down HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and traditional TV networks, according to publishers, analysts, and Facebook executives. Zuckerberg has said privately that it’s not an exact YouTube competitor either, according to a Watch partner.
While releasing high-end videos from partners may seem similar to YouTube Red, Watch is not a subscription service. Facebook executives have stressed publicly and in private conversations with publishers that the plan is for ad-supported shows, not unlike TV. Facebook also wants to leverage its tools — Groups, Live, Profiles — to grow shows.
“We’re not going to win by competing with prestige, hour-long dramas. What’s going to differentiate us is a show that uses social fabric,” said Facebook’s Head of Global Creative Strategy Ricky Van Veen, appearing at the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference in Miami on Tuesday.
And yet, Van Veen came off as a TV executive rather than a guy from a Silicon Valley tech company to those in the audience as he announced three new Watch series at NATPE: half-hour drama “Sacred Lies” from Blumhouse Television; unscripted “Fly Guys” from Jukin Media; and “Bear Grylls: Face the Wild.”
“Facebook Watch was described as a platform for funded, premium shows and episodes that could create a more serialized viewing experience for the Facebook audience. That’s mostly still true although Facebook continues to experiment with the length and topic matter of their programming,” said Jarrett Moreno, cofounder of media company ATTN.
Externally, Watch is pitched as thematic, episodic shows optimized for Facebook, a TV for the connected generation where viewers are commenting and interacting with other fans before, during, and after. Van Veen teased the potential of Facebook creating a feature to eliminate spoilers, for example, due to its data capabilities.
Only a “handful” of Watch shows are funded, and they tend to align with the words “premium” or “optimized.” Zuckerberg is willing to spend $1 billion this year in original programming, according to Wall Street Journal report from September. A Facebook spokesperson declined to confirm that number, suggesting it’s not set in stone and could rise or fall depending on interest.
“Fortunately for them, they have a whole lot of money where they can make a ton of mistakes. Facebook follows YouTube in that bright shiny object,” said Alan Wolk, lead analyst at consulting firm TV[R]EV.
The first act
Watch launched in August, but TV-like ambitions have been on Zuckerberg’s mind for much longer.
Working with creators and organizations to make more “engaging and meaningful content” was part of Van Veen’s job description when he was hired back in June 2016. In early 2017, talk of Facebook owning “TV-quality” shows escalated with reports of the company building a TV app and the hiring of Mina Lefevre from MTV.
When releasing Watch, Facebook went after two sets of shows.
“When we were doing the deal with Facebook, there were super premium shows they were green-lighting… and then there’s all this other content like sports and entertainment, how-to, and beauty,” said Sherry Liu, vice president of business development and strategy for AwesomenessTV.
For publishers with unfunded shows, Watch is an experiment where they must grapple with pouring resources into an effort with knowing how it will resonate on the new platform.
Already, Hometalk has found success not by pushing shows with narrative arcs like Facebook suggested but rather by focusing on thematic DIY shows. The site has grown its Watch Page to nearly 2 million followers, with growth skyrocketing in December.
Hometalk is one brand that aligns with Facebook’s new emphasis of “meaningful” interactions. While they publish videos, Miriam Illions, co-founder and CMO of Hometalk said she doesn’t consider Hometalk to be a traditional publisher.
“We’re a DIY community. If you take a look at our videos, you’ll see real engagement. People ask and answer questions, post pictures of their own projects in the comments, and share by the thousands with their friends and family,” Illions said.
For some media companies quite familiar with Facebook, trying Watch was a “no-brainer,” said Izzie Lerer, founder and chief creative officer of The Dodo.
“We’re very comfortable on Facebook. We know our audience, know how to make emotional animal content. This was an opportunity to tell more longer, substantive stories,” she continued.
The Dodo’s show Odd Coupleson “pet BFFs” has attracted tens of millions of views per episode, for example.
It’s still early days for Watch, but so far, the most successful genres are the unexpected ones. According to exclusive data from Canvs, an analytics company that provides TV networks and digital publishers with data from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social platforms, the highest-performing genres are Educational, Gaming, and Horror.
Canvs evaluates Watch shows based on Emotional Reactions, or ERs, where it categorizes comments or replies based on emotions.
Canvs’s data showed worst-performing categories were Travel, TV Extras, and Science and Technology.
While Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives may emphasize Watch is not a direct YouTube competitor, creator-driven videos are resonating with the platform’s early viewers. Delaney noted Nas Daily, a travel show with Nuseir Yassin, as a high-performing vlogger.
Overall, a good sign for Facebook is that engagement on Watch is going up.
“Typically as volume scales and time passes, the emotion rate goes down, but that’s not what we’re seeing with Facebook,” Delaney said. “Viewer engagement on Facebook watch continues to build and accelerate.”
That’s coming with only a little promotion. Watch appears on the upper-left corner of desktop and has top real estate on the lower bar of the mobile app, but it’s still not nearly as dominant as the News Feed, which is the default screen on both desktop and mobile.
Act 2: dramas
Zuckerberg may not be shilling enough cash to get the next Game of Thrones or House of Cards, but several high-investment shows are landing in the coming weeks. Facebook also just released a new feature called Watch Party for communal viewing.
During the CES technology trade show earlier this month, actress and producer Kerry Washington was on stage with Watch’s product lead Fidji Simo to talk about her new drama series Five Points.
“We’d been looking to really enter into storytelling in the digital space because I have this social media, digital capital… looking for ways to put content in these spaces where I think everything is going anyways,” Washington said.
For Five Points, Washington is going all-in on the Facebook brand. She noted several ways she planned to integrate Facebook features into the show’s marketing strategy.
“We get to have it live in the space where we get to combine it with [Facebook] Groups, LGBT community, gun violence, drug use, bullying. It’s really a lot of young-people issues that we’re tackling and exploring. Being able to leverage Facebook Live. Also having some of the cast create accounts that can represent their characters,” Washington said.
Filmmaker Gotham Chopra also decided to exclusively work with Facebook on his next project, Tom vs Time, a documentary series on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Chopra cited three reasons: Brady’s community is already on Facebook, a shared point of view for the unconventional, and creative freedom.
“The folks at Facebook Watch trust Tom (and his creative partners) on how he communicates with his fans. That means a lot of creative freedom and voice that isn’t necessarily the case at traditional networks,” Chopra told Mashable.
Despite adding these new shows, other partners didn’t seem intimidated or concerned their shows would receive less attention going forward. Rather, partners said it will hopefully bring more attention to the platform’s existence.
“What I think Facebook does it kind of make it a level playing field,” said Liu of AwesomenessTV. “It’s just about great content. It’s what [Facebook] is known for.”
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