Snapchat Content Execs Talk App Redesign, Push Into Scripted Programming

Photographed by Brad Torchia
Nick Bell

Snap vp content Nick Bell and head of original series Sean Mills, who spoke to members of the television press for the first time on Monday, explained how they are approaching mobile video.

When Snap vp content Nick Bell took the stage at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour for the first time, he asked the crowd how many had used his company's messaging app, Snapchat, in the last week. 

Only a few people raised their hands. 

That moment succinctly characterized what will be Snapchat's biggest challenge as it makes a push into producing more original programming. The app's 178 million daily active users are primarily young people who use it to message with their friends. Original series, meanwhile, largely have been relegated to the hard-to-find Discover page. But Bell and Snap head of original content Sean Mills made the trek to Pasadena to speak to reporters in part to help raise awareness about their programming efforts. 

"We're just at the very beginning," acknowledged Mills of the company's efforts to develop a new form of mobile video. "We're learning alongside our partners." 

Snapchat began offering editorial and video content from publisher partners like ESPN and CNN in 2015. It began releasing vertically shot, shortform video series — fittingly called Shows — in late 2016. So far, Snapchat has focused on unscripted originals — like E! News show The Rundown, NBC's The Voice on Snapchat and ESPN's mobile take on SportsCenter

But in 2018, the company will place more emphasis on developing scripted formats. Already, Snap has formed a joint venture with NBC to experiment with scripted originals. Its first producing partners are Mark and Jay Duplass.

"I'm fascinated by how serialized is going to work on Snapchat," Mills told the TCA gathering, adding that the app — known for its disappearing messages and Shows that only last 24 hours — will make it possible for users to rewatch episodes, thus allowing people to follow along with a storyline. 

Snapchat's scripted programming efforts were stalled slightly by the news late last year that CEO Evan Spiegel was planning an overhaul of the app. The change, expected to roll out to all users early this year, was a response to concerns over slowing user growth amid increased competition from companies like Instagram. It also is designed to be more user-friendly to a broader audience. 

When the redesign goes into effect, it will separate content from friends and content from premium partners. While social media users tend to react strongly to changes (remember the early hatred for Facebook's news feed?), Bell said that it could actually help drive viewership to Discover Shows. He explained that it "will give far more prominence to premium content" and "also allow us to optimize the experience based on your personal likes and interests." 

During the short Q&A, Bell also fielded questions about CNN's decision to shut down its daily news Show. The exec explained that news has been popular for Snapchat, pointing to the 29 million people who watched NBC's Stay Tuned during it first month, but said that what works best are shows that use new footage and formats designed for the Snapchat audience. 

Bell also addressed the ways in which Snapchat plans to embrace the creator community — which was largely overlooked during Snapchat's first few years. "Our philosophy is to have a walled garden," he explained. "We prefer to double down with a handful of partners in each category."