Can Facebook Transform Itself Into an Original Content Provider?

Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize
Zuckerberg (right) may tap stars like Vin Diesel (left) for premium video content.

"The idea is to bridge people away from YouTube as they set up video ads on Facebook," one Hollywood insider suggests.

“We are a tech company, not a media company,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously declared this summer. Maybe he spoke too soon.

On Dec. 14, the social network revealed that it wants to get into original scripted and unscripted video and is in talks with video producers — think TV studios, digital media companies and web stars — about buying programming. The shows would feed into Zuckerberg’s video aspirations that already include the much-hyped rollout of Facebook Live. “Our goal is to kick-start an ecosystem of partner content for the [video] tab,” says Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s newly appointed head of global creative strategy, who is spearheading the project.

While details, including potential partners and budgets, are scarce, Facebook says it is looking for original and licensed content optimized for mobile and social interaction. Insiders expect Facebook to work with companies already pushing video to the platform, like BuzzFeed and even late-night TV shows with viral video success, as well as to seed fund social media creators with big Facebook followings. “The idea is to bridge people away from YouTube as they set up video ads on Facebook,” one Hollywood insider suggests. Sources say that while it’s still early, the more immediate plan is to pay for shortform content rather than compete with streaming video platforms like Netflix and Amazon with big-budget exclusives.

Many in Hollywood were caught off-guard by the announcement, with some questioning how the platform would monetize content and whether the service is trying to make video for an audience it doesn’t have. “Facebook isn’t cool for young people anymore,” says one lit agent. “It’s old people engaging, while young people have already moved on to other platforms like Snapchat.”

Still, with its 1.18 billion daily active users, Facebook has potential to reach a large video audience. Observers suggest the goal is to drive tune-in through more premium fare than the user-generated content that currently proliferates on the site, though such videos will continue to be part of the video tab. BTIG media analyst Richard Greenfield says it’s no different from when HBO shifted from licensed movies to TV originals: “Each of these platforms, as they look to differentiate, increasingly look toward proprietary video.”

The move is similar to when YouTube began funding new “channels” in 2012. After years of tiptoeing around original content, it now is funding full-fledged shows and movies, including a Step Up adaptation, under its YouTube Originals banner.

Observers say it only was a matter of time before Facebook started funding content after making live video a priority by cutting checks to media outlets and stars like Kevin Hart to produce broadcasts. It also may be a sign Facebook is readying an ad platform that would allow creators to profit off their work. Says Greenfield: “No one works for free forever. If they don’t find a way to start compensating creators, creators are going to leave. We saw that with Vine.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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