Facebook Watch Strategy: "We're Not Going to Win With Prestige Dramas"

Creative chief Ricky Van Veen gets in bed with Blumhouse and explains why it made sense to license Lithuanian basketball.
Courtesy of Facebook
'Ball in the Family' star Lavar Ball

Facebook's fledgling Watch platform — the streaming content service designed to compete with Netflix, Amazon and the upcoming effort from Apple — may only be five months old, but its leader seems to already have a handle on what's going to work best.

"We're not going to win by competing in prestige hourlong dramas," Ricky Van Veen said Tuesday morning. "What's going to differentiate us is a show that uses social fabric."

Van Veen, the College Humor co-founder who now serves as Facebook's head of global creative strategy, offered a Watch status update at the NATPE conference in Miami Beach and announced new series from Blumhouse and Bear Grylls.

Basketball reality show Ball in the Family has been the breakout thus far. The show, whose lead Lavar Ball was parodied on Saturday Night Live only days ago, is among the most popular on the platform. Its fan base also inspired Facebook to secure the U.S. rights to...Lithuanian basketball.

"Yes, it's core to our strategy," said Van Veen, laughing. "Recently Lavar pulled two of his kids out of school and put them in the Lithuanian league. We did a deal for the rights to Lithuanian basketball games, and we stream them live on Facebook. What we're able to do there is reach out to fans of Ball in the Family."

And some of them seem to be watching. Van Veen said he recently tuned in to one Lithuanian game and saw 115,000 concurrent viewers.

Lithuanian basketball may be a recent boon, but it is an outlier. Van Veen said the focus is still on unscripted and scripted programming that will engage communities and publish regularly. "Watch is a new platform, so retention is crucial," he said of factors influencing early renewals. We are trying to develop that weekly habit, preferably a daily habit. We want people to use Facebook in a new way. We're introducing a whole new behavior and it takes a while to get things going."

Getting users to Watch is a challenge, and Van Veen said that one way they hope to lure viewers in the future is through corporate sibling Instagram. Facebook is already working on a way to link to Watch videos through Instagram stories to engage fan bases.

New series announced Tuesday include Sacred Lies (working title), a thriller from horror king Blumhouse Television and writers Raelle Tucker and Scott Winant. Bear Grylls and longtime producing partners Electus are launching Face the Wild on Watch. And stuntman series Fly Guys will also land on the platform later in the year. The Blumhouse project, interestingly, is among the first half-hour series from Facebook. And Van Veen says that's something they'll be leaning into, as much of the feedback on the shortform narratives has been requests to make them longer.

One thing the umbrella of longer programming won't include is anything resembling a traditional broadcast drama.

"We probably wouldn't do a procedural, where you watch it, you enjoy it, you're done with it," said Van Veen. "We're more inclined to do something like Scandal or The Bachelor, where you want to talk about it afterward."