Video Publishers Sour on Facebook Watch: New Content ‘Mathematically Is Not Justifiable’

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The video platform continues to be a hit or miss for publishers looking to drive revenue

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"Sorry to Bother You," "Ball in the Family," "Red Table Talk" (Facebook Watch)

Nearly two years and a billion dollars after the launch of Facebook Watch, video publishers say the platform is still struggling to shift the viewing habits of its online community, while ad revenue continues to be a hit or miss. In interviews with seven publishers with experience on Facebook Watch, only one reported having substantial success on the platform. Most said the modest ad revenue produced hasn’t justified further investment in the platform — despite videos racking up millions of views. Four out of the seven producers, who all at one time produced Facebook-funded shows, say they are no longer investing in exclusive content for the platform. The company spent an estimated $1 billion in 2018 to fund a diverse slate of shows with just as diverse formats. To date, it has launched scripted shows, unscripted shows, interactive game shows, talk shows, a slate of news programming, long-form content, short-form content and traditional reality series like MTV’s “The Real World.” Facebook has also started to bring full-length TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Real World” to its platform and continues to starry new shows with stars like Tom Brady, Stephen Curry and Will Smith. Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, hosts one of Watch’s most popular shows, “Red Table Talk,” a series that averages millions of views, with many episodes topping 20 million views — but many publishers say that even content that seems to be connecting isn’t producing big enough revenues. “It’s like a lot of other funded initiatives at other organizations, there are one or two series that do well, but for the most part it’s not living up to the expectations that people have put on the platform as a whole,” a news-focused publisher with multiple shows on Watch said. “I think they’ll probably do away with it or put it back into the closet on Facebook somewhere buried in a menu.” Two more video publishers say they have pivoted to use Watch as a form of marketing and experimentation for new content rather than a way to drive revenue. (All spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the desire to maintain their relationship with the social media giant.) Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment on the subject. Here are the biggest concerns cited by video publishers.

1. Facebook’s viewership numbers are flawed.

Despite videos on Facebook Watch garnering tens of millions of views, publishers said the metric the social media giant uses to measure a view can be misleading in terms or predicting revenues. For a view to count, a user must watch a video for at least three seconds. While this may provide Facebook with good optics in terms of boosting viewership numbers, most viewers don’t stick around long enough to watch an advertisement and, as a result, publishers can’t monetize that interaction. “We see about 30% of our audience get to an ad,” said a publisher with a mix of more than eight shows on Watch, some of which Facebook is still funding. That’s a healthy number for videos that reach tens of millions views, and the publisher noted that of the 30% that hit an ad, 80% watch the entire video. But many publishers haven’t been able to achieve similar results. 2. The revenues don’t justify further investment in content. Even if a publisher is able to get viewers to watch its videos long enough to see an ad, Facebook claims 45% of all ad revenue from those views. As a result, many who initially produced programming for Watch have decided to move on from the platform. “Our biggest reason for not moving forward is the [return on investment] on that platform, as it relates to the cost of an asset we produce versus the rev share we received,” one publisher said after his company partnered with Facebook on several funded shows. “Even when those views exceed seven figures, [it’s] just mathematically is not justifiable.” 3. Discoverability and retaining an audience are both big challenges. For smaller, lesser-known publishers driving traffic to their content has proved to be a big obstacle. “It’s really hard to take a new episode of a show with no followers and force people to consume it and know that it exists there, other than Facebook trying to drive people into Watch, which is still a very small fraction of the overall audience,” the president of one company with several shows on the platform said. This can be a dilemma even with shows that are highly publicized by Facebook, such as Kerry Washington’s scripted series “Five Points,” which has already been renewed for a second season. While the show has received a rating of 7.9 out of 10 on IMDb, the show struggled to retain viewers during its first season. Viewership nosedived more than 80% from the first episode (7.2 million) to the season finale (364,000). This significant drop is common among many of Facebook’s shows, such as Lavar Ball’s “Ball in the Family” and “Skam,” which dropped from 14.7 million views for episode one of the first season to 1.5 million for the season finale. “Sorry for Your Loss,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, also received rave reviews and a second season renewal, but only its first episode has surpassed 1 million views, while 50% of the episodes are still below 500,000 views despite launching five months ago. 4. Facebookers are still accustomed to short-form, feed-based content. One issue may be that Facebook users who’ve been operating in a feed-based enviroronment just aren’t accustomed to watching long-form video on the site. “These are totally different experiences. I think behind the scenes it was harder to convert that user behavior than they may have thought,” one publisher who is no longer producing content for Watch said. “I don’t think they’re done with the platform. It remains to be seen how they will choose to pivot and craft the next chapter.” Another executive, whose company previously had two Facebook-funded shows on Watch, added, “I’d say it’s not working the way they wanted, but I don’t know why they ever thought their approach would work in the first place — it was so counter to what made Facebook work.” The executive also expressed doubts about the company’s ability to pivot to make the platform work. “Unfortunately, they don’t stick with things long enough to really figure it out and they don’t follow their own advice about community being the guiding force behind Facebook,” the executive said. 5. YouTube still wears the crown as the king of video. Facebook has seen some success in growing video viewership: According to the company, 400 million people spent at least one minute a month with Watch content as of January. But that accounts for about 5% of the 1.5 billion people who use Facebook daily. “It hasn’t been able to hold a candle to the scale that YouTube brings to the table,” said one publisher who has worked extensively with both platforms. For comparison, YouTube typically draws in 1.9 billion people a month who spend an average session time of 40 minutes on the platform. 6. The silver lining Despite the challenges, most of the publishers agreed that it’s too early to tell if the push into video was a complete miss in grabbing the attention of a digital audience. Currently, the company is working on new ways to grab and hold the attention of viewers, such as folding Watch Show pages into a tab located on the publisher’s original Facebook page to make finding content easier for consumers. Moreover, even publishers who have stopped producing Facebook-funded programming for Watch see an upside to the time they invested in the platform. “What Facebook did was deficit-finance a bunch of IP that we could retain ownership of,” said a publisher whose company has worked with Watch since the launch of the platform. “From that standpoint, it was a very positive experience for us because they paid us to generate content that we retained ownership of that we otherwise probably wouldn’t have produced.”