Facebook Watch finds a purpose as TV testing ground

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Credit: ABC via Facebook Watch

Facebook Watch has found a new calling as a testing ground for TV, even as it struggles to compete directly with the living room screen.

Take ABC's new show developed for Facebook, "More in Common." The alphabet network saw the response to the program on Facebook, where it has been running since the summer, and decided it could use the same content for a short run on TV. Last weekend, "More in Common," a show that features Americans with opposing views becoming friends, ran in major local TV markets owned by ABC, including New York and Los Angeles during fringe dayparts.

"From a financial perspective, it's a really interesting model," says Anna Robertson, VP of growth and partnerships at ABC. "It's a show funded by Facebook, and now it gets a second wind that we can now sell to advertisers."

"More in Common" is an example of how networks and publishers could use Watch as more of a proving ground, if it doesn't become a major entertainment destination itself. Facebook launched Watch last year, as a rival to YouTube, and the service has been in a constant state of experimentation. The company has struggled to figure out the right formula to change user behavior from laid-back viewing while scrolling through the News Feed, to more purposeful on-demand consumption.

In its first year, Watch has yet to find its reason for existing, according to Jim Nail, analyst with Forrester Research. Viewers don't seem to understand the new brand of digital video streaming, which was built around shows like "More in Common," dating games, reality shows and even scripted series featuring major stars such as Elizabeth Olson.

"There doesn't seem to be a reason to use Facebook Watch," Nail says. "Facebook doesn't even seem to know what it's about."

What ABC has done with "More in Common" could be a valuable use for Watch, Nail says. "If it allows content creators to test out ideas and do it quickly and cheaply, that's a good direction for Watch."

Facebook even paid for the production of "More in Common," making it economical for ABC to repurpose the program. It ran in eight markets over the course of Saturday and Sunday, and is airing on ABC's Live Well Network this week. ABC would not reveal the ratings, but said the show held its own compared to other programs running in the same time slots.

Facebook funded "More in Common" as part of its news initiative, a lineup of current affairs shows it bought from major broadcasters such as CNN and Fox and from digital-first publishers including ATTN and Mic. The Watch news shows launched in June, and Facebook is starting to evaluate their success before committing to ordering more from most of the media partners, if it even does.

Facebook gets the shows for an exclusive period of time, and then the producers can run them on any of their own properties. ABC was the first Watch news partner to make the jump to TV, though.

Another Watch creator, The Dodo, owned by Group Nine Media, recently sold a show to Animal Planet. And Fox recently adapted a dating game, "Phone Swap," created for Snapchat for TV.

"More in Common" embodied what Facebook said it was looking for from Watch programs; the show even featured people who squabbled in Facebook comments. Facebook has always said it wants to facilitate shows that are uniquely born out of the culture of its platform and feel natural to social media.

One episode of "More in Common" featured a former KKK member befriending a Syrian refugee, and it generated 5.8 million views.

That's a lot of views for one of Watch's news programs, which generally average in the hundreds of thousands, but advertisers say that there is still not enough of an audience on the service. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even recently acknowledged Watch is still far behind its main rival YouTube.

"The scale just isn't there," says one top digital advertiser, who is close to Facebook and spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're monitoring, though, to see if that changes."

"Facebook is asking users to shift behavior," says Amy Darwish, director of media operations at Resolution Media. "Eventually advertisers and monetization will follow."

ABC is testing digital shows through its new Localish media brand. It recently announced three new shows from Localish that will get posted to Facebook, among the other digital platforms.

As for the future of news programs on Watch, ABC says it is still evaluating if "More in Common" will get another run.

"I don't know," ABC's Robertson says. "It was a great experiment and we'll look to see how it performed and whether we want to do it again."

Facebook declined to comment for this story.

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