Critic's Notebook: Will Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium Keep TV Execs Awake in Worry?

Susanne Daniels - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

For years in the television industry, the specter of "the internet" hung over some executives and analysts like the bogeyman. It was partly because plenty of them flat-out just didn't understand "the internet."

And it was also partly because so many of them worried about "the kids" and their fixation on YouTube videos and free, DIY shortform content training a generation to ignore actual TV shows and scripted programming.

While there's some easily identifiable ignorance in those earlier worries, especially the fact that younger viewing habits can and will erode (like growing out of certain types of music, clothing styles, etc. — young people will grow up and watch actual story-driven television; they will want an actual television as opposed to a phone), recent developments have indeed wiped away some fears. For example, when executives found that a star's Twitter (or other social media) followers didn't translate to viewers. Or when popular YouTube personalities failed to become actual TV stars. That made nights less sleepless for many TV execs.

But what didn't fade was an outsized worry about the outsized audience of both Facebook and YouTube when it came to perceiving both as threats to long-term viability and thus profitability.

With both online giants getting into the original content game via Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red), there's been an anxiety bubble that's hard to ignore.

At least in the case of one of these threats, that bubble might have burst. Facebook Watch came to TCA and did a face-plant.

Fidji Simo, vice president product at Facebook, who took the lead in conceptualizing the company's role in video content to TV critics and reporters on Wednesday, struggled to position it clearly and was rattled by push-back on a proposition that Fox News has an imbalanced representation on the platform. Similarly, Ricky Van Veen, head of global creative strategy at Facebook, couldn't right the ship and sell the highlights of its cruising speed while simultaneously scooping up Simo after she went overboard. It wasn't the greatest introduction — but TCA has a way of doing that to first-timers.

And while not adequately or convincingly telling TV critics and reporters about your service is a whole lot less important than, say, having your service be super successful and crush the life out of competitors in the marketplace, there was still something telling about the Facebook Watch presentation that rivals will have easily gleaned via the transcript if they haven't already by watching the service closely: There is nothing irrefutably concrete about its plan.

Right now it appears that Facebook Watch can and will pull big names into its orbit, especially its non-fiction one, by way of lots of money and the magical thinking of "likes" and number of comments being arbiters of success. That might work at Facebook as cash money, but it doesn't work in the TV business.

Asked what kind of leap it would take for Facebook Watch to get taken seriously as an original content platform, Van Veen said: "From my point of view, I think it takes a show that breaks through and becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist. I think with our show, Ball in the Family, when we see SNL kind of doing a parody of the main character, that sort of thing, or Tom vs Time kind of getting in that pre-Super Bowl Week conversation, and I think those are those breakthrough moments. I think it will be a long way to go before, you know, we're at that level of other platforms who have had big, huge breakouts. But I think we're seeing some encouraging signs, and I think it really has to do with being part of that go-to pop culture lexicon."

Uh, no. Not happening right now, sorry.

Simo's answer to the same question: "And it's also our breakouts may look different than what you would expect on other platforms, because we're not going for sort of, you know, big, prestige TV dramas. We are really going for shows that trigger conversation. So, what you've seen with SKAM, what you've seen with Red Table Talk, so that may look different for us when we do have such a breakout."

That's great, but no, no and nope.

Yet since gobs of money will make stars become platform agnostic, Facebook Watch may also get some decent-sized names to sign on for its scripted content. Any good agent and manager can tell a star that there's no difference these days to where they appear because there are so many options that viewers are perpetually confused. They don't know their Epix from their Audience Channel, their Bop TV from their Crackle, so just take the money and nobody will judge them.

Which is fine, because all money is good money, but it's a dangerous 'like' because discerning TV viewers aren't truly that stupid. They know that TNT is better than Facebook Watch, etc., etc. etc. And, depending on their age and interest in scripted programming, those discerning viewers will prove irrefutably that Facebook Watch isn't a player in the scripted world that matters to people in that arena of television.

But YouTube Premium might be. Emphasis, asterisk and whatever disclaimer you would like on the word might.

YouTube Premium is run by Susanne Daniels, who has tons of broadcast and cable experience, from running the WB to Lifetime, MTV, stints at Fox, etc. She knows what she's doing. YouTube Premium and Daniels didn't have much time at TCA, but they did a pretty good job with it and Daniels, tapping into her experience in front of this group, had a very solid executive session. One of the upcoming series she touted, Origin, was at least compelling enough in the preview (if you can put any merit into that) for me to want to see more of it — the first time I've ever said that about any YouTube Premium/Red content (and yes, that includes Cobra Kai).

I completely disagree that one series is enough to make people subscribe to anything, but if Origin turns out to be good — again, a big 'if' — and Daniels can replicate that three or four more times, then now you have something.

But does YouTube Premium have something right now? Not anything I'd want to pay $11.99 a month for, that's for sure. If you factor in the riotous, swelling, agitated wave of YouTubers who want everything for free and are appalled at Premium with premium pricing, you've got a sort of vocal in-house audience objecting to it and ruining your pitch. Newly curious potential subscribers who can tune that out must ask themselves if YouTube Premium is a realistic option. Betting money says no, until Daniels puts a handful of very good shows on the service, and that prospect gets harder with each passing day as Disney and Apple are getting into the fray (and getting into your pocket).

But again, at least YouTube Premium knows what it is right now, what it aspires to be and has someone in charge who could at least keep a bunch of other executives up at night with deep, disturbing worries. It is a dangerous giant in slumber.

That said, while Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium had vastly different experiences here at TCA, neither is the bogeyman of yore.