Facebook's Other Battle: Luring Viewers to Original Shows

Illustration by Jason Raish

Amid all of Mark Zuckerberg's woes, the social media's streaming video service is still seeking a breakout hit with new "lighthouse" series like 'Queen America,' starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. But will that be enough to get the attention of the company's 2 billion users?

When producers at MTV Studios and Bunim-Murray Productions made the rounds this summer to pitch a revival of The Real World, they had a condition: MTV, which had stopped airing the show, wanted to remain part of Real World's branding at its new home.

It was a request that wouldn't fly at Netflix, where even licensed shows like Riverdale are presented without the original network's logo. But Facebook was open to the idea. The MTV name, after all, is known around the world and could be useful in drawing viewers to the social network's under-the-radar streaming platform, Watch. On Oct. 17, Facebook revealed that it would reboot the long-running franchise as MTV's The Real World.

"MTV is an incredibly strong and great brand," says Facebook development and programming head Mina Lefevre. "They resonate internationally and domestically."

After Watch's inauspicious start in August 2017 — it launched with a haphazard mix of shortform series, scripted comedies and reality projects that led one development executive to quip, "If they know what they want, they're doing a bad job at messaging it" — Real World is one of a handful of new projects that Facebook is betting will finally make it a destination for must-see TV. But wooing Hollywood partners may prove easier than winning over viewers.

Recently, Facebook has shifted away from the shortform shows and scaled down the number of projects greenlighted as it aims for what executives are calling "lighthouse" series with household names or known IP that could become their platform-defining hit a la Netflix's House of Cards. In September, Facebook debuted Elizabeth Olsen drama Sorry for Your Loss (originally developed at Showtime), and Nov. 18 released pageant dramedy Queen America, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. On the unscripted side, Jada Pinkett Smith hosts an interview show, Red Table Talk, that returned with more episodes Oct. 22.

"We're focusing on fewer but hopefully bigger tentpole events," says Lefevre, an MTV veteran who joined Facebook in February 2017. True, but as far as big swings go, Facebook's slate is still modest. And even a platform that boasts 2 billion users worldwide will have a hard time standing out when Netflix alone will release an estimated 225-plus projects this year. Meanwhile, Facebook hasn't exactly made it easy for viewers to find its shows, accessed via a TV icon to the left of the news feed. The result is that early bets haven't broken out. Despite wowing critics, Sorry for Your Loss episodes average around 705,000 views (counted anytime a person watches a video for at least three seconds). "We're continuously working on that," acknowledges Lefevre, adding that Watch recently ramped up marketing, as with a 30-second national spot for Queen America during the 2019 Miss America competition. "I feel like we're on the right track and hopefully with more [success] to come." (The company has also had to deal with plenty of recent distractions, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to getting caught flat-footed policing Russian propaganda.)

Adding to Facebook's challenges is that Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are spending a combined $15 billion-plus annually on content. Pivotal media analyst Brian Wieser estimates that Facebook spends around $1 billion, including live-sports deals. "Their production budget needs to be in the billions, if not low tens of billions if they want to be a meaningful player," he says.

Sources say the company is spending selectively but competitively, writing checks for $2 million an episode or more, standard for a half-hour, for scripted shows like Queen America. Facebook has also set itself apart with a mandate for shows that lean into its core features, like connecting with a community. To that end, Pinkett Smith posts live videos on the site, and the Sorry for Your Loss show page gives users a place to post about grief. "I don't think of us as traditional TV," says Lefevre. "The content is there to hopefully compel you to engage in a deeper way." 

That's been a selling point for many creators. MTV president Chris McCarthy notes that the interactive nature of the Facebook platform made the social network an attractive new home for Real World. "We stopped doing Real World because for us to do it on one of our cable networks, we would have had to bastardize the format," he says, adding of Facebook, "Together, we'll be creating a whole new genre of content, one we're calling 'shared reality.'" 

The global nature of the platform, which rolled out internationally in August, also can be appealing. The company offers generous ad-revenue splits with partners in addition to licensing fees. (And at least one unscripted star makes "six figures" an episode, per sources.) Even so, some talent remains nervous about taking a project to an unproven platform. "It was scary," says Queen America executive producer Bruna Papandrea. "When you're one of the first, you just don't know. But it became clear early on that they were making the show we wanted to make."

A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.