As a TV critic, answering questions about outlets like Facebook Watch has become an unspoken part of my job description. (Common variations include “Facebook makes TV now?” and “Ugh, another one?!”) Peak TV continues unabated, though according to FX’s meticulous annual breakdown, the bulk of that growth can be attributed to one particular sector of the television economy: so-called “online services,” like the year-old subdivision of Mark Zuckerberg’s sprawling creation.
Some of the companies bankrolling these services, like Netflix and Amazon, are tech giants that have successfully pivoted or expanded their brands to encompass more than their flagship product; other tech companies, however, still exist in an uneasy limbo between newfangled innovation and old-fashioned network. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported Apple’s difficulties in combining the graphic edge of prestige programming with the broad-based, family-friendly appeal of a trillion-dollar company. YouTube has achieved more success with its original shows and films, possibly because the site functions as its own talent farm, yet remains largely distinct from other areas of culture—Premium, née YouTube Red, feels more like an escalation of YouTube’s homegrown ecosystem than a bridge between the site and more traditional outlets. And there are only more case studies to come: Facebook subsidiary Instagram launched IGTV, at its outset entirely unscripted, earlier this year; Snapchat’s parent company has been threatening a slate of original programming since last summer.
Occasionally, a crossover show will force the contradictions between these young platforms and the more traditional institutions they’re trying to break into. The latest is Sorry for Your Loss, an intimate, half-hour drama starring Elizabeth Olsen, Janet McTeer, and Kelly Marie Tran as a family processing the premature death of Olsen’s character’s husband. The show seems designed as Facebook Watch’s coming-out party to a more high-brow viewership, and in that sense, it’s succeeded, affording Watch a level of media exposure and legitimacy it hadn’t previously enjoyed. Later this fall, Watch will attempt to keep the streak going with Queen America, a pageant comedy co-starring Judith Light and Catherine Zeta-Jones set to launch in November.
But a more thorough review of Watch’s catalog reveals it’s probably not destined to become an awards-contending omnibus like Netflix, largely because it’s not trying to be one. Sorry for Your Loss has its moments, but with episodes shot on location in various unglamorous corners of Los Angeles, the production is as low-key as its subject matter. The effect is somewhere between web series and full-fledged cable dramedy, reminding me of Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s Take My Wife on NBCUniversal’s short-lived streaming site Seeso. Facebook Watch has considerably more capital at its back; still, Sorry for Your Loss has a shaggy feel that matches its anarchic online home.
On the internet, form isn’t just function—it’s destiny. The way Facebook Watch shows are presented to the viewer remains in line with the strategy outlined last year: “Watch combines elements of YouTube, Twitter and traditional TV,” wrote the Washington Post. “This isn’t for prestige television, for binge-watching marathons or even for more traditional show formats. Watch is primarily a place for shorter, snackable and—above all—social content.” (Emphasis mine.) Original series may earn Watch publicity, but a would-be YouTube competitor is naturally going to try and chip away at YouTube’s seeming ownership of brief, shareable videos. Much more than star vehicles or artistic daring, short videos are exactly what Watch is designed to promote.
To access Watch shows, a Facebook user simply clicks an icon on the top left of their screens, beneath Messenger and above Marketplace. Surprisingly, Watch originals don’t automatically get top billing. There’s a carousel, where recent releases like Sorry for Your Loss share space with the official page of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. And for neophytes who haven’t already subscribed to various series, there’s a page automatically populated with personalized suggestions, the vast majority of which—at least for me—are from out-of-house sources. There’s a clip of Beto O’Rourke playing guitar with Willie Nelson from the politician’s official page; an episode of First We Feast’s popular Hot Ones franchise; a sketch from a Tracey Ullman show on the BBC. Like YouTube, Watch is much more of a place for third parties to display their wares than Facebook itself to stock the shelves.
The specific recommendations will of course vary from person to person, or rather algorithm to algorithm. But even if someone else’s slate includes more Tasty videos and less Bill Maher, there’s still not much of a homepage push for Watch’s scripted comedies and dramas. Unless episodes are shared directly into your feed, there’s little way to organically come across them. Instead, Watch feels like a more permanent, browse-able version of all the isolated videos one catches floating around a Facebook News Feed—which, it turns out, is exactly how it’s been sold to publishers like Condé Nast and Fremantle.
Once one manages to actually track down the original series, Watch shows differ from Netflix, Amazon, and even Hulu shows in a few crucial respects. Unlike a paid subscription service, Facebook shows sell advertising, meaning that numbers for individual shows, rather than cumulative revenue, actually matter. The other is that, in the YouTube tradition and in stark contrast with Netflix’s opacity, anyone can see said numbers underneath any given video. (This being Facebook, you can also scroll through a comments section or “react” to a video with a heart or thumbs up.) The necessary caveat here is that a “view” in Facebook’s estimation is not remotely equivalent to one in Nielsen’s; the blue behemoth counts just a few seconds of a user’s time towards its overall total, which does not specify what proportion of that number constitutes full viewings of an entire video. Still, Facebook’s self-tallied metrics are useful for comparing results within the platform. They also make the four-digit totals for teen drama Turnt particularly stark.
As the cringe-inducing name suggests, Turnt is an as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to cater to Gen Z, with short episodes, released in bundles of three every week, and featuring Musical.ly star Cristian Oliveras. With teen pregnancies and illicit affairs galore, the goal of Turnt seems to be a successor to Skins, though the effect is closer to Days of Our Lives Jr. Like a lot of Facebook Watch shows, Turnt’s episodes are just 10 to 15 minutes long, splitting the difference between a sketch and a full-length half hour. Turnt shares this structure with fellow teen soap Five Points, an issues-and-empathy melodrama clearly modeled after 13 Reasons Why, and the first season of Strangers, a Broad City-esque buddy comedy co-starring Search Party’s Meredith Hagner and produced by Refinery29. (Along with short-form talk show After After Party, Strangers is one of multiple collaborations between the new media company and Facebook’s video arm.) Both Five Points and Strangers have found more success with the format than Turnt: In a pattern typical of Facebook Watch offerings, each show started their latest season with viewers in the millions, then gradually settled into an average of about 300,000 views per episode.
Like Netflix’s redefinition of the comedy special to include just 15-minute sets, these abbreviated run times suggest that TV made for and by the internet can be substantively different from the conventional kind: a new genre, or even art form, to match a new frontier. More than straightforward half-hours like Sorry for Your Loss or the Blumhouse-produced Sacred Lies, which dutifully operate within the established parameters of the urban dramedy and the mystery thriller, the most exciting of Facebook Watch’s scripted offerings leans into its medium.
Skam Austin is an adaptation of a wildly popular Norwegian series, presided over by original creator Julie Andem. Though Skam eventually compiles its various components into full “episodes,” the show is best experienced scene by scene, three to five of which are released individually over the course of a week. The clips correspond to the time of day at which they’re set: party scenes drop at night; school ones during the day. It’s the kind of distribution only possible when one doesn’t have to contend with a time slot. Skam Austin further capitalizes on the intimacy of sharing a platform with viewers’ everyday social interactions by building in extra-textual elements, like in-character Instagram pages with follower counts in the tens of thousands. Skam doesn’t just blur the boundaries between web series and regular series. It deliberately scrambles the connections between fiction and real life, helping to immerse the viewer in the characters’ lives in a way unique to online narratives.
As Watch’s comedies and dramas continue to find their footing, however, the unscripted side has yielded a few bona fide hits, often by partnering with prominent personalities who already have their own dedicated followings. Bear Grylls: Face the Wild draws anywhere from half a million to 6 million people to its micro-adventures pairing Grylls with a fan; Tom Brady’s Tom vs. Time attracted a viewership of millions and, more importantly, launched a ubiquitous meme. The formula is both dependable and predictable, which makes it less exciting to write about than a baby photo repository making a drama about loss. These franchises feel more like web series as they’re traditionally understood: vestigial, disposable material designed to buttress a flagship, like the Kardashians half-assing a “prank” show.
Some reality shows are more symbiotic. LaVar Ball is the upstart broadcaster of Ball in the Family, his three-seasons-and-counting effort to promote his basketball dynasty as a collection of personalities as well as athletes. With every episode, Facebook gets content, and Ball gets airtime to shape his sons’ brands and his family’s. Other shows try to integrate Watch’s social dimension the way Skam has. Competition shows like BuzzFeed’s RelationShipped and Tamera Mowry’s Help Us Get Married enlist users as matchmakers and wedding planners, and use American Idol-style voting in which the feedback and distribution mechanisms are one and the same. RelationShipped is, essentially, what The Bachelor would be like if viewers could vote on contestants and dates in real time, rather than having weeks’ worth of editing choose their sympathies for them. Help Us Get Married picks up much further down the relationship road, though the participatory element remains the same. For these weddings, anyone can be that judgemental bridesmaid who thinks the dress is pretty, just a little … basic, you know?
But the best Watch reality show, and one of its most popular, doesn’t resort to a gimmick to create a sense of intimacy between the hosts and the audience. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk has been the video site’s unlikely breakout, with a view count consistently in the tens of millions. The premise is an intergenerational summit between Smith, her daughter Willow, and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris at the Smiths’ actual family home, discussing with guests sensitive topics like addiction and sex. Red Table Talk doesn’t explicitly nod to its social media context, but its content is entirely in the spirit of the internet’s candid-yet-curated disclosure. Together, the Smiths have discussed Norris’s experience with heroin addiction, Willow’s brushes with self-harm, and Pinkett Smith’s approach to parenting. By the heavily mediated standards of A-list celebrity, Red Table Talk feels genuinely, refreshingly honest—and a fantastic advertisement for Facebook’s ideal brand as a democratic source of connectivity.
As Facebook Watch continues to fill out its slate, successes like Red Table Talk and Skam Austin indicate the service’s potential. As much press attention as Sorry for Your Loss has garnered, the non-premiere episodes have garnered roughly 40,000 to 50,000 views. Both commercially and creatively, projects that embrace Watch’s status as something unlike television hold more promise than those that simply replicate what’s worked for the rest of the medium. This is uncharted territory; better to explore it than simply copy and paste.