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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Facebook friends TV?

By Jonathan Webdale 06-07-2017

Facebook hit two billion users last week – around two-thirds of the world’s population with internet access. That’s quite an audience, one television execs can only dream of. Except that now, the social media behemoth is getting into the original video game and, albeit tentatively, opening up its vast platform to third-party producers.

News emerged this week of two non-scripted shows the company has commissioned. The first, Returning the Favor, will feature Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, as he travels the US looking for people helping others in their communities. The second is an as-yet untitled doc series about a family whose three sons are fledgling basketball stars.

Details are as-yet sketchy but this is the latest pair of projects to emerge from a broader slate in development – one where budgets reportedly range as high as US$3m per episode.

American Ninja Warrior producer A Smith & Co was last month named the prodco behind Last State Standing, another show Facebook is moving ahead with, which sees contestants from across the US compete in a series of challenges for a US$500,000 prize. A revival of cancelled MTV comedy Loosely Exactly Nicole is also in the works.

“I see video as a megatrend. That’s why I’m going to keep putting video first across our family of apps,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February during the firm’s fourth-quarter earnings call, shortly before it launched a video app on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Samsung smart televisions.

It’s a theme the company has been talking up over the past few years. Having achieved the milestone of a billion video views per day back in the autumn of 2014, the figure quadrupled six months later to four billion and doubled again to eight billion by November 2015, boosted that year by the launch of live streaming and 360º videos.

The preferred metrics changed at the beginning of 2016 when Facebook said users watched 100 million hours of video per day on the site, with 500 million people tuning in daily, and the firm introduced a dedicated video tab.

Zuckerberg: ‘I see video as a megatrend’

Whichever way the numbers are cut, if Zuckerberg identifies a megatrend then a megatrend it is, and a few months later the firm hired the co-founder of IAC’s CollegeHumor and Electus collaborator Ricky Van Veen as head of global creative strategy to tap into this.

“I’ll be working with all types of creators and organisations to figure out how best to use the biggest network in the world to better connect people with engaging and meaningful content,” said Van Veen in a Facebook post announcing his arrival.

The exec further expanded on his agenda in December. “Our goal is to kickstart an ecosystem of partner content,” he said, “so we’re exploring funding some seed video content, including original and licensed scripted, unscripted and sports content, that takes advantage of mobile and the social interaction unique to Facebook. Our goal is to show people what is possible on the platform and learn as we continue to work with video partners around the world.”

Then, early this year, shortly after Zuckerberg’s megatrend comment and prior to the launch of the Facebook video TV app, Van Veen hired MTV exec VP of scripted development Mina Lefevre as head of original content development.

“I have always been drawn to the idea of building something and the idea of being part of the team that helps build Facebook’s original content ecosystem… well, that just seems like a dream,” Lefevre wrote in her own Facebook post.

Lefevre oversaw Loosely Exactly Nicole – a 3 Arts Entertainment/Jax Media copro with a high six-figure per-episode budget – during her time at MTV and, just as Netflix and Hulu have pursued TV revivals as part of their overall programming strategies, so it makes sense for Facebook to follow suit.

Such a scripted project would be mid-tier in terms of those Facebook is apparently pursuing through briefings with stateside talent agencies and production companies.

Zuckerberg said in February the firm would be “focusing more on shorter-form content to start” and in May it signed an array of digital media specialists such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Group Nine Media, according to Reuters, to power these largely non-scripted efforts, with episodes running at five to 10 minutes and budgets of up to US$35,000.

The news agency stated that Facebook would not own the shows and would share ad revenues from them with their makers. It also noted that the company’s scripted ambitions extend to episodes of 20 to 30 minutes, which it is prepared to fund to the tune of US$250,000 per instalment, claiming that the social network would in turn take ownership rights. The Wall Street Journal last week put this figure much higher, at the US$3m mark, which for half an hour would put such shows on a par with where Netflix started out on House of Cards.

All will no doubt become clear when Facebook officially launches its originals push, likely this month. Under pressure from the steady trickle of leaks, VP of media partnerships Nick Grudin said: “We’re supporting a small group of partners and creators as they experiment with the kinds of shows you can build a community around – from sports to comedy, to reality, to gaming.

“We’re focused on episodic shows and helping all our partners understand what works across different verticals and topics. We’re funding these shows directly now, but over time we want to help lots of creators make videos funded through revenue-sharing products.”

Facebook introduced mid-roll video advertising earlier this year and, as per its existing business model, will no doubt be favouring such products moving forwards, in contrast to the SVoD fees championed by Netflix and Amazon.

What is clear is that the Facebook founder recognises the tremendous enduring power of TV, an argument execs from the traditional side of the business have espoused for years to counter suggestions the medium will be usurped by digital.

“Watching video of our favourite sports team or TV show, reading our favourite newspaper, or playing our favourite game are not just entertainment or information but a shared experience and opportunity to bring together people who care about the same things,” said Zuckerberg in his 2017 mission statement.

Facebook’s plunge into original video is certainly not without challenges, in particular the impact this might have on the company’s ability to maintain it is a platform rather than a publisher. But it will no doubt be welcomed by the production community, coming at a time when the likes of Apple and Snapchat are also getting into the game.

But the threat to broadcasters is potentially huge – both those publicly-funded who fear the growing influence of west coast US companies on domestic culture, and commercial players who find themselves increasingly competing for the same ad dollars.

“As Facebook continues to invest in video and its ARPU increases, it is conceivable that in the not-too-distant future an average Facebook user will be worth more than an average TV viewer in terms of advertising,” wrote Ampere Research analyst Tony Maroulis in May.

Indeed, global internet ad spending will outstrip TV this year, according to media agency Zenith, with Google and Facebook together claiming some 60% of the market, on estimates from eMarketer. What broadcaster can compete with an audience of two billion and rising, let alone one that can be accurately measured? Netflix and Amazon have made a virtue of coproducing with national networks. Whether Facebook will befriend them in the same way remains to be seen.

today's correspondent

Jonathan Webdale C21Media

Jonathan Webdale is a journalist with more than a decade of experience covering the international television business. He joined C21Media in 2004 after four years at New Media Age and oversees C21's online and social media presence, audiovisual output, daily news operation and special reports, plus the FutureMedia print magazine and annual conference.