‘Facebook is only half in’: Creators doubt Facebook’s commitment to original programming

Publishers are happy to take Facebook’s funding for original video programming, but several existing and potential content partners expressed doubts that the company is committed to short-form shows for the long run.

Facebook is paying for both long- and short-form shows as part of its initiative. With long-form shows, which Facebook would entirely own, Facebook is willing to shell out as much as $250,000 per episode — equaling low-end cable TV budgets. These will be only a handful of shows, however, as most of Facebook’s deals so far concern short-form programming that runs anywhere between four and 10 minutes per episode. These are called “spotlight” shows by Facebook, which has signed up BuzzFeed, Attn, Mashable, Group Nine Media and others as partners.

For short-form shows, Facebook is willing to pay $10,000 to $40,000 per episode. Here, the media partner would retain the rights to the show, which they can distribute on their own site after seven days on Facebook or other platforms 14 days after premiering on Facebook.

Unlike Snap, which is also seeking exclusive shows, media partners describe a relationship where Facebook is more “hands off” with the short-form shows it’s buying. After a pitch process, Facebook selects which ideas it likes and orders full seasons outright, instead of piloting them. (Sources that are working with Facebook on the long-form shows describe a different situation where Facebook is more involved.)

“They’re trying to move as quickly as they can to launch this, so it’s more focused on getting big partners on board versus actually programming,” said one publisher that’s sold a short-form series to Facebook. “In that way, it feels like the first round of YouTube grants.”

It’s an approach that has rubbed some digital publishing partners the wrong way.

“Doesn’t this just scream that Facebook is only half in on this?” said one top Facebook video publisher. “If they came in with stricter guidelines — ‘We’re ponying up cash so [these shows] can only be on Facebook’ — we’d see them as tough negotiators, but at least we’d feel that they were serious about being a video destination versus trying to lure media partners in with yet another product.”

Much of the trepidation comes from publishers that have been paid by Facebook in the past to create content — specifically, for Facebook Live — and now fear a bit of déjà vu.

“Facebook is going to spend money, and they’re going to spend money upfront, and that’s good,” said an executive from a publisher that was paid by Facebook to do live videos but hasn’t signed a show deal just yet. “But it’s going to suck for media companies if they put all of this time and effort into original content and no one sees it.”

The problem stems from the struggles publishers have had with Facebook Live, which came out to much fanfare and a heavy push by Facebook. When Facebook made live video a priority, every media company under the sun embraced the product.

But the reach simply hasn’t been there — partially due to quality (or lack thereof) and partially because Facebook hasn’t made it easy for people to discover live videos.

“A majority of our live content was seen by very few people,” said one publisher paid by Facebook to produce live videos. “Yes, a few things took off, but relative to what publishers were spending in terms of both time and money, Facebook wasn’t able to effectively get live content in front of people.”

Facebook plans to solve for discovery by prioritizing shows within its new video tab. The idea is that both the long-form and short-form shows will be featured at the top of the video tab, followed by general content. Citing the troubles with Facebook Live, publishing partners aren’t sure if Facebook has the ability to create this new user behavior, where people grow accustomed to visiting the video tab to watch content.

“Quite honestly, it’s still a work in progress for them, and that’s why they’re pushing back the potential launch [of shows],” said one publishing exec who has sold a show to Facebook.

Over the past year, Facebook even paid nearly 140 media companies to produce a minimum number of live video minutes per a month. Earlier this year, some of those deals were renewed and evolved into “licensing” partnerships through which Facebook pays even a smaller group of partners to produce live and on-demand videos, sources said. Here, the deals require a majority of the video to be on-demand, said a publisher whose deal was renewed by Facebook.

Some Facebook shows will be a part of these deals. As one publisher described it, Facebook will still pay “incremental” fees upfront to produce the short-form “spotlight” shows, which the platform will recoup by running mid-roll ads within the shows. These shows will count toward the minimum-minute requirement that Facebook has with media partners getting paid to produce and distribute content, this source said.

“It’s the evolution of live into this, and it’s all colliding as they push for more premium stuff,” said the source.