Social network’s bid for world domination now includes flawed video service.
Facebook, as part of its continuing mission to be all things to all people, this week added ‘video producer’ to its ever-growing resume.
The social network, Internet service provider, and creator of hare-brained AI that could destroy humanity (unless Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un get there first), this week unveiled an ad-funded online video service called ‘Watch‘, ramping up competition with the 800-pound gorilla that is YouTube.
Unlike YouTube though, Facebook is going to have a stab at picking what viewers might like. This is risky, but Facebook seems to be keen to include live sport in its offering, which is one way of guaranteeing a large audience.
Watch will feature short-form shows, some pre-recorded; some shown live, about various groundbreaking subjects such as comedy, and ‘reality’ – that thing from which people used to escape by watching videos – as well as sports.
"To help inspire creators and seed the ecosystem, we’ve also funded some shows that are examples of community-oriented and episodic video series," explained Daniel Danker, director of product at Facebook, on Wednesday.
"For example, Returning the Favor is a series hosted by [Discovery Channel presenter] Mike Rowe where he finds people doing something extraordinary for their community, tells the world about it, and in turn does something extraordinary for them," he said. "Candidates are nominated by Mike’s fans on Facebook."
With an addressable audience of more than 2 billion monthly active users, Facebook doesn’t necessarily need to worry about how universally appealing a show as schmaltzy as Returning the Favor clearly is; it could still be a hit if it proves popular with only a fraction of its membership.
Content creators and publishers will have an opportunity to earn money from their shows via advertising. Facebook calls this mind-blowing innovation ‘Ad Breaks’.
"We’ve been testing Ad Breaks over the past few months, and we will be slowly opening up availability to more creators to ensure we’re providing a good experience for the community," said Nick Grudin, VP of media partnerships at Facebook.
As with all online video these days, viewers can like them, and comment on them, and share them with friends. They will also be able to join groups dedicated to particular shows.
So far, Watch sounds like YouTube but without the user-generated content, and that could potentially hamper Facebook’s success. YouTube doesn’t try to pick the best videos, it simply hosts the broadest range of content possible, and lets users decide what’s a hit and what’s not.
A quick read of Business Insider’s ranking of top-earning YouTube stars shows that the vast majority were not famous before YouTube, and that most of them rose from humble beginnings to stardom by talking mainly about videogames.
Part of the appeal of personalities like PewDiePie – who reportedly earned around €10 million-plus last year and has more than 50 million subscribers to his YouTube channel – is their amateur status. They are considered accessible to and representative of their audience. Even if Facebook spent enough money to secure an exclusive deal to host someone like PewDiePie’s content on Watch, some of that accessibility and relatability would surely be diminished.
It is also difficult for Facebook Watch to succeed by hosting user-generated content, since the social network part of Facebook already does this.
It will therefore need to score an early hit, and an easy albeit expensive way to bring in a big audience is to show live sport.
On that note, Facebook said it will start with baseball, showing one game per week, "enabling people to watch live baseball while connecting with friends and fellow fans on the platform."
It may have to show considerably more than one live game per week to get people to commit regularly to Watch, but it’s a start.
With video consumption on mobile devices enjoying huge growth, the incentives for Facebook – which generates almost 90% of its ad revenue on mobile – to launch Watch are clear.
A study in late 2016 by Mediakix calculated that people spend on average 35 minutes per day using Facebook, compared to 40 minutes on YouTube. Watch is a way for Facebook to increase that amount of time, to the benefit of advertisers.
As always with video though, content is king, and Facebook Watch will need to do more than host ‘safe’ shows and one live baseball match per week if it wants to challenge for the crown.