Facebook Execs Defend Fox News on Watch Platform in Combative First TCA Outing

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Ricky Van Veen & Fidji Simo

Ricky Van Veen, head of global creative strategy, and Fidji Simo, vp video, took their first turn in the hot seat at TCA to explain their vision for Facebook programming, with Van Veen noting that success is about more than "the single number you see at the bottom of the video."

Nearly a year after launching video platform Watch, Facebook executives trekked to the Television Critics Association's summer press tour to showcase how they're approaching programming for the social network. 

As is often the case with new platforms, their content strategy required some explanation. The half-hour panel featured short prepared remarks from both vp video Fidji Simo and head of global creative strategy Ricky Van Veen. When they opened up the conversation for questions, the executives appeared surprised when many of the queries focused on not original entertainment programming but the Watch platform's relationship with right-wing media organizations and misinformation. 

Responding to a question about InfoWars, which Facebook has said it won't boot from the social media giant's platform despite InfoWars spreading conspiracy theories, Simo noted that she finds the outlet "absolutely atrocious" but "we must balance freedom of expression and safety. There is a big difference between what is allowed and what gets distribution." She went on to explain that Facebook has ways of making sure that controversial videos or those with misinformation are not widely shared on the platform, including a pop-up that appears before someone shares a misleading video or link, that she calls "very effective at stopping" the spread of that information. 

When another press attendee followed up with a question about Facebook's recent partnership with Fox News on a daily show, Van Veen tried to shift the conversation away from news programming, which falls under the purview of Campbell Brown. "Fidji and I aren't in the news organization," he said, to multiple protests from the crowd. "I'd love to talk about originals and Watch if we can." Simo followed up by noting that Facebook had also struck a deal with CNN and said, "We are really trying to show a range of programming." 

The executives weren't facing nearly the scrutiny that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was dealing with Wednesday afternoon. At the same time that the TCA panel was taking place, Facebook announced that it brought in less revenue during the second quarter than Wall Street was expecting — an indication of just how the company has fared since facing questions about its data protection policies earlier this year. 

Van Veen and Simo did not have to field questions about the earnings results, and eventually were able to focus on entertainment programming. Asked about how they evaluate the success of a show, Van Veen explained that it is a combination of metrics like week-to-week retention and discussions around a show. He noted that Jada Pinkett Smith's Red Table Talk has around 3 million followers and also spawned a community group where people go to discuss the episodes. "There are a variety of factors beside the single number you see at the bottom of the video," he said. 

Facebook is now looking to encourage those kinds of conversations about its shows. The company announced Wednesday ahead of its presentation that it has officially rolled out a group viewing feature called Watch Party, which allows friends to watch Facebook videos together. The company first began testing the product earlier this year but will now make it more widely available.

Since Watch launched in August, Facebook has experimented with a number of formats and genres. Its early efforts were focused on comedy and unscripted content. This year, it launched dramas SKAM Austin, renewed for a second season, and Five Points. And coming up are high-profile projects like Catherine Zeta-Jones starrer Queen America. Per Van Veen, one of the biggest takeaways from the first year of programming Watch is that audiences want to view longer pieces of content. "One thing that we thought initially that turned out not to be true was that people won't watch longer videos on Facebook," he told The Hollywood Reporter in a post-hot-seat interview. "Watch enabled a new behavior."  

It's unclear how many people are visiting Watch on a regular basis since the company has not released user metrics beyond the publicly available view counters for each of its videos. Some reports have indicated that initial viewership has been underwhelming. But Simo noted to THR that the company is taking a long-term approach to growing the audience for the Watch tab. She likened it to creating a habit and explained that only happens as the company builds up a broad content offering, adding, "It's definitely happening but it takes time to build this habit." 

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