The launch of the social networks new streaming service, Watch, sees a range of offerings but the strategy to focus on reality TV might limit long term success
There was something crushingly inevitable about the news that Facebook, the worlds largest social network, would be throwing its hat into the original programming ring.
Earlier this summer, it was announced that the social-network-turned-all-consuming-corporation would be funding a slate of original episodic content documentary series, reality shows, and scripted programs that would be hosted on the websites new Watch feature, which appears to the left of the newsfeed, just below the Messenger tab. While other streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu earn revenue by charging subscription fees, Facebook is leaning into originals in an effort to siphon advertising dollars away from network and cable television and toward its own social behemoth, where easily shareable short-form video has been thriving for years.
The hope, it seems, is that Facebooks success in becoming a platform for the sort of bite-sized, informational clips that occupy users newsfeeds those of the Vice, Vox, and Mic ilk will translate to longer form content, earning the company a spot in the hotly contested streaming wars. YouTube and Apple, both of which are also pouring money into original content, have similarly high hopes for their prospects as online streaming services. But Netflix and Amazon didnt emerge as pioneers of a new form of television consumption on the backs of brand recognition alone; the formers very first original series, House of Cards, was a critical triumph tailor-made for the era of bingeing, and it was followed, just months after, by another award-winning series, Orange is the New Black.
Amazon Prime, too, earned its stripes by leading with celebrated dramedies like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, which positioned the site as a worthy competitor to Netflix based on the quality, not the quantity, of its originals. Facebook, by contrast, is looking to replicate the sort of viral content thats already widely shared by its users, just in longer, episodic form: in the Watch tab youll find a new Humans of New York series, which transforms the inspirational posts chronicling the lives of everyday New Yorkers into 20-minute documentary-style episodes.
Theres also Returning the Favor, an Extreme Makeover-style series celebrating the philanthropic efforts of various American do-gooders, and Ball in the Family, an Osborne-esque reality show about Lavar Ball and his preternaturally gifted progeny, the basketball stars Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo. None of these shows will prompt critical fervor, but they do suggest Facebook, at least as it rolls out Watch, is adhering to a formula thats tried and true: its 2 billion active monthly users already gravitate towards the sorts of feel-good stories that might otherwise be confined to local news networks. In that way, Watch is less a debut than it is a refurbishing.
Humans of New York is the natural extension of what began as a photoblog and ballooned into a popular Facebook page and then a coffee table book. Initially, it featured quasi-candid photographs of an assortment of New Yorkers, accompanied by a quote from them, about life, work, family, love, religion you name it. The posts were so inspiring that the page accrued 18m likes; Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the phenomenon, wrote an open letter to Donald Trump that became one of Facebooks most-shared posts ever. The series, of which there are currently two episodes available, is a lot like the photoblog. Each installment features brief video vignettes of local folks a pair of subway dancers, a mechanic with a disabled son, two Muslim sisters reading their summer bucket list. One wonders if the show might be better served by sticking with one subject for the whole 20 minutes, but it works too as a collection of anecdotal tales plucked from the sundry streets of the big city.
Returning the Favor is, if not an entirely original concept, a better distillation of what Facebook Watch is looking to achieve in its transition to episodic programming. In the first episode, the host, Mike Rowe, visits Cedar Lake, Iowa, where a veteran named Jason Zaideman started Operation Combat Bikesaver, a garage-run initiative encouraging former combat veterans living with PTSD to rebuild motorcycles and bikes. Rowe visits the shop, hears the harrowing stories of those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, and gathers the local community to help renovate the operations headquarters and celebrate its vets. Yes Returning the Favor is pretty much a spin on Extreme Makeover Home Edition, retrofitted for our fractious political landscape, but its exactly the kind of show that could thrive on Facebook, where plenty of newsfeeds reflect an insatiable appetite for all things unlikely, uplifting and undiscovered.
I wasnt as enthused by Ball in the Family, which is less a reality show than an exercise in brand promotion for the brothers Ball. Each member of the family appears in most scenes wearing T-shirts that read BBB, acronymic for Big Baller Brand, the line of athletic apparel developed by Lavar Ball, the patriarch of this burgeoning basketball dynasty. His oldest son, the 19-year-old phenom Lonzo, was picked second by the Los Angeles Lakers in this years NBA draft after a record-breaking freshman season at UCLA. His younger brothers are promising players who plan to follow in Lonzos footsteps. His mother Tina, whom Lavar met in college, had a stroke earlier this year that left the right side of her body paralyzed, and the show documents her struggle alongside the familys full-court press towards basketball domination. And while theres no doubt a huge audience for the show, its ultimately just another reality program pegged to a large, boisterous, and somewhat candid American family.