Which shows are working on Facebook’s one-month-old Watch video platform? A batch of early renewals is helping bring the social network’s original programming strategy into focus.
The tech giant is handing out second seasons to Mike Rowe’s unscripted series Returning the Favor, Bunim/Murray-produced reality series Ball in the Family and scripted comedy Strangers. Facebook is also confirming an earlier THR report that it will revive Nicole Byer’s MTV comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, for a 10-episode second season.
“It’s early,” says Facebook vp media partnerships Nick Grudin, “but what we’re looking for with these shows is, are they finding an audience and are they engaging an audience? These shows have done that.”
Facebook’s video efforts have been lumped in with Amazon, Google and Apple offerings, but the social network has taken a slightly different approach, combining highly produced (and fully funded) originals with lower budget shortform video series. Though a clear strategy hasn’t fully emerged, these early pickups signal that Facebook is looking for shows that take advantage of the interactive nature of the platform and resonate with its 138 million daily active U.S. users. (Watch is currently only available in the U.S., though Facebook is looking to expand the platform into other countries in the future.)
Returning the Favor, for instance, has become one of the most-viewed shows on the platform with over 70 million total views, in part because of the community that already existed around Rowe’s Facebook page, where he has over 5 million followers. “I don’t know what a Facebook show means, to be honest, but I know what my Facebook page is,” says Rowe (Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs). “My Facebook page is the only place where I can tell people that I’m going to say exactly what I mean to say. The show feels like my Facebook page.”
Nine episodes into the first season, Rowe says he has begun to take advantage of the interactivity of Facebook by sourcing ideas for the show, which honors local do-gooders, from its comments section. Facebook has ordered a 13-episode second season of Returning the Favor, which will debut at the end of this year. Grudin says that the show has worked well on the platform because Rowe is “a very engaged creator, thinking through how to participate in natural ways with the audience in order to make and develop the storyline.”
Meanwhile, Grudin points to Ball in the Family — which follows the lives of LaVar Ball and his basketball-playing sons — as a show that has drawn buzz due to its high-profile subjects. The docuseries, which has debuted 10 episodes since Aug. 31, will return later this year for a 13-episode second season. “What they see is really the authenticity,” says Steve Ezell, an executive producer on the show. “You see a different side of the family than you see in the media.”
Prior to the launch of Watch, people would discover videos on Facebook primarily by scrolling through their newsfeeds. Last June, Facebook tapped CollegeHumor co-founder Ricky Van Veen to lead global creative strategy as it began to plot a more concentrated video effort. Late last year, Facebook announced plans to start buying shows for the new video tab, later named Watch. Over the last several months, the social network struck deals with dozens of media partners to build up a library of frequently refreshing video for Watch. Some partners agreed to finance their own shortform series in exchange for a cut of advertising revenue (though the ad product is still being fully fleshed out). Others agreed to have their shows fully financed by Facebook.
While Facebook executives have said that they eventually want advertising to fully support the shows that they bring to Watch, Grudin acknowledges that they will continue to fund programs for now, even as they look to broaden the platform to more partners. “What we’re trying to do is try to feed the ecosystem,” he says. “We want to accelerate creative best practices to figure out what does work. We’re learning a lot from all of our partners.”
On the scripted side, where Facebook has made fewer pickups, the social network is making bets on projects with singular voices. Mia Lidofsky’s Strangers, for example, follows a bisexual woman who rents out her spare bedroom to an assortment of interesting characters. The series, produced by Beachside and Refinery29, premiered at Sundance earlier this year before making its way to Facebook, which streamed the seven-episode first season. It will return for a second season next year with 10 new episodes that executive producer Michael Clark says will expand from 15 minutes in length to a more standard TV half-hour (between 20 minutes and 25 minutes). “It took a particular buyer to be able to not just order more episodes but also air the first season,” says Clark. “In a lot of ways, Facebook wants to marry the traditional idea of a network with a very modern idea of how one reaches an audience.”
With Byer’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, Facebook played the role of savior, giving the show a second life after its cancelation at MTV. Episodes from the first season (cut down to a more mobile-friendly 20 minutes each) recently re-aired on Facebook ahead of the show’s second-season debut in 2018. For Byer, reviving the series on a new platform opened it up to an entirely new audience that may not have caught it during its linear run. “Not everyone has cable,” she says, “but everybody has a Facebook.”