You’ve heard a lot about Facebook this year, but you may not have heard about Watch.
Watch is the social network’s hub for video, and, unlike the rest of company, it’s been mostly unscathed by Facebook’s privacy, security, disinformation and leadership scandals. Unfortunately for Watch: Neither its successes nor failures have been glaring enough to attract notice.
Since launching last year with a reported $1 billion programming budget, Watch has yet to score with a critical smash or popular hit. It hasn’t got a signature show, like House of Cards, that puts its original content on the map, or a must-see program, like Stranger Things, that drives people to it in droves.
Ask Facebook and it’ll say Watch is faring great. Watch’s niche programming is a feature, not a bug, according to Fidji Simo, Facebook’s head of video.
“What we’re really going after is the amount of conversation and engagement, and that can be realized both in niche communities or in broad hits,” Simo said in an interview last week. “But we’re not really going for massive viewership.”
Facebook is part of a scrum of tech and media companies wrestling one another to lock down your attention for TV online. But while most are taking aim at Netflix with online video subscription services, Facebook is stalking YouTube’s turf of free video you watch with ads. And with 2.27 billion people using Facebook every month, the world’s biggest social network may be the one competitor with the scale to actually take on YouTube.
It just needs to figure out how.
“I’m not sure Watch is the future of Facebook video,” said Michael Greeson, president and director of research at the Diffusion Group, whose research shows half of adult Facebook users have never heard of the service. Instead, he says, it may be “the next step in the company’s learning curve.”
More than 400 million people visit Watch each month and stay for at least a minute of video, an indication they’re intentional viewers. On a daily basis, the number is 75 million people, and among those, the average watch time is 20 minutes.
That implies Watch has roughly 25 million hours of viewership each day.
To put that in perspective, people watch more than a billion hours of video on YouTube daily. And Google’s massive video site has more than 1.8 billion logged-in users every month.
But, as is always the problem with online video, none of these comparisons are perfect. YouTube’s billion-plus daily viewing hours, for instance, take place across its entire site. Facebook Watch’s stats don’t include videos people watch on other parts of the site, such as their News Feed.
And these squishy, imperfect comparisons make it hard to gauge whether Facebook’s most successful shows are doing well. By pure number of followers, Jada Pinkett Smith’s talk program, Red Table Talk, is Facebook’s biggest show, with 4.3 million followers.
What do you even compare that to?
Maybe Tyler Oakley. Oakley, sometimes referred to as the Ellen DeGeneres of YouTube, has fewer followers on Facebook itself than Red Table Talk does. But he has 3 million more subscribers on his main platform, YouTube. (For the record, DeGeneres’ own Facebook following is nearly 30 million. So we can say Red Table Talk isn’t a hit on the scale of the Ellen Show. Illuminating.)
That Facebook is measuring its success in social conversation and engagement makes things cloudier still. Watch’s most loyal audience, measured by the number of people who completed at least three episodes, is for Sorry for Your Loss, a bereavement drama starring Elizabeth Olsen. Sorry for Your Loss is also Facebook’s most critically acclaimed program and Watch’s best shot so far at potentially scoring award nominations.
But the show’s third episode has just 182,000 views. Compare that to the final episode of Netflix’s House of Cards — that is, the eighth episode in the sixth season of a series that’s well past its heyday. By Nielsen’s ratings, House of Cards’ finale still pulled in an estimated 901,000 viewers. And that’s just in the first week. The first three episodes of Sorry for Your Loss have been available free for three months globally.
Of course, Watch is still a baby.
“Facebook Watch is a grand experiment, and it’s still early in the game,” said Peter Csathy, chairman of CreaTV Media, a media- and tech-focused business advisory and investment firm. “It’s been watching and learning and growing and changing, and that’s all part of the plan.”
Facebook Watch’s strategy also doesn’t lend itself to making shows that break outside their niches. Watch’s goal since the beginning, Simo said, is to create video that’s intrinsically social, so Facebook shows line up with built-in communities on the social network. Hence, beauty pageant fanatics match up well with Queen America, a newer Facebook Watch show that stars Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Facebook’s other game plan has been to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. In more flattering Silicon Valley parlance: Fail fast.
“We specifically designed our content strategies to be able to learn a lot,” Simo said. “That’s a big part of the reason why we’re funding content, to be able to learn as fast as possible.”
Those two strategies combined can yield shows with real traction in specific groups, even if their appeal is invisible to wider audiences. It’s the same paradox that meant many traditional media companies have dismissed YouTube stars as minor leaguers.
Facebook’s unrelenting scandals this year haven’t helped Watch. Watch is getting lost in the haze as Facebook puts out its other fires. Instead of Facebook’s brand drawing people into Watch’s shows, it’s increasingly a barrier, according to Csathy.
The social network has been especially hard hit among young people, those most coveted by advertisers and a video-centric demographic that Watch has been aiming to lure in. A study by Pew found that 44 percent of people aged 18 to 29 years old have deleted their Facebook apps.
Instead, Watch could lean hard into demographics that are already there, said Scott Fisher, the founder of Select, a company that manages top digital creators and influencers like Oakley.
“Facebook is almost like the daytime TV” of online video, Fisher said. “Facebook should have the next This Is Us for their originals. That’s the right vibe. If they end up trying to do House of Cards, I don’t know if that makes sense.”
But Simo flatly rejects speculation Facebook Watch is recalibrating around older viewers, pointing to teen-targeted shows, such as SKAM Austin and Five Points, that Facebook is renewing.
“We are seeing some trends in younger audiences, and they are really engaged with these types of shows and create a lot of conversation,” she said.
Looking forward to next year, Simo said much of Watch’s efforts will be focused on developing ways to make video more social, interactive and immersive, like testing a dark background when you’re watching a show. And Watch wants to keep widening its advertising base, so creators have more ways to make money from their videos.
Of course, pushing for advertising led Facebook into the middle of minefields. Even Watch will need to watch its step.
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