Facebook has announced the rollout of Watch, what it is calling "a new platform for shows on Facebook". It's yet another foray by the social media company from the business of distributing other people's content into producing and licensing its own, and differs from its existing video content in that it looks a lot like Netflix or YouTube's apps.
Watch content will be "produced exclusively for it by partners", who will take 55 per cent of revenue. That content will be spread via channels such as "Most Talked About" or "What's Making People Laugh", categories that will be determined by how users interact with it. Watch will offer both a live comment feed where users can interact with the wider Facebook audience — something that already exists with Facebook Live streams — and the ability to "participate in a dedicated Facebook Group for the show".
Here's a few shots of what it will look like on various formats, as shown in the press release. It definitely looks slick and polished, but even this initial glimpse hints that Watch is not the YouTube or Snapchat killer Facebook wants it to be.
Facebook's launch programming for the new video section is, uh, not exactly the A-list talent one might think a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars could secure.
It includes Nas Daily, a show from a guy who quit his job to make one-minute travel videos "together with his fans from around the world" (a preview clip is titled "We Bought 1000 Burgers"); a live show where motivational speaker Gabby Bernstein will interact with Facebook users; a cooking show where children will attempt to make a recipe; and in probably Facebook's biggest grab, one live game of Major League Baseball a week.
Another show mentioned in the launch is Returning the Favor, where host Mike Rowe "finds people doing something extraordinary for their community, tells the world about it, and in turn does something extraordinary for them". Yet another focuses on "the passion and community of big-time high school football in Texas".
There are a few more interesting options, such as a NASA science show, and a live National Geographic safari program.
But none of this seems particularly edgy or hard-hitting. It's the definition of safe. This is the kind of generic filler that forms so much of YouTube's bread and butter — but if that's all they have lined up, what could possibly lure people from YouTube itself, which has long been pumping out much more interesting content tailored to virtually every niche interest and community?
Facebook's content strategy is almost certainly to prove functionality and its ability to drive users to the service, and then try to lure other content producers to the service. But like a number of Facebook products before it, it's unclear why publishers would want to use the platform. For example, Facebook Live already allows publishers to stream content such as protests or post-Game of Thrones commentary live to their pages. They can also push regular video content wherever they want without an exclusive deal, whether it's Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and all three of these channels can be embedded elsewhere.
Another goal could be to compete with Snapchat, which a lot of publishers have started using to push short-form video content. But it isn't clear how Watch will get those users to return by replicating some of Snapchat's functionality, especially since the latter company's video content tends to be in reality or unscripted formats which seem nicely in tune with its overall aesthetic.
This looks a lot like Facebook's attempt to push publishers into the same kind of walled garden they built with Instant Articles. Large sections of the media were spooked it was a prelude to Facebook choking off traffic to other websites — why would Facebook let you link out when they can force you to live in the garden, right? — but the concept has stalled somewhat, as Instant wasn't driving enough additional traffic to offset its lower advertising revenue.
Facebook has a tendency to build platforms it just loses interest in. Instant is still around, but in a diminished role as Facebook tweaked its algorithm to drive users to friends' posts, video content, and most recently another story format to compete with Snapchat. In the past few days, it has killed off its standalone Facebook Groups app and Lifestage, a "high schoolers only" Snapchat knockoff that ended up ranked #1392 in the App Store's social media category.
It's certainly possible Watch will help Facebook swallow more and more of the internet into its ever-expanding gullet. But supplying a nice-looking video platform does not automatically create demand, and Facebook has repeatedly stumbled trying to create a business model that will keep both users and publishers inside of it instead of clicking out. We'll see.