The Rundown: With Watch news shows, Facebook still holds the cards

Facebook this week announced long-awaited news shows for its “Watch” video section, which is a step forward in the battered Facebook-publisher relationship. Facebook is paying publishers to make the shows, and in doing so, showing a commitment to quality news. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of global news partnerships, described it as tailor-made for the partners because it gives them a “chance to experiment” with long-form content and to reach young audiences that don’t typically tune in to the nightly news.

“We have to support that,” she said, adding that the “hope is to create a sustainable business model” for news.

But at the end of the day, Facebook’s obligation is to Facebook, and its interests haven’t always been aligned with publishers’. It’s been decreasing the reach publishers get on the platform and has admitted it’s fallen short in attempts to create meaningful revenue-generating opportunities for them. Its political ad-labeling policy lumped news content in with political ads for labeling purposes, which publishers worried would taint them as biased.

The Watch news shows, too, show how the relationship is still lopsided. Facebook hasn’t said how it’ll promote the shows, but since Watch is Facebook’s platform, it still has far more ability than any individual publisher to get the content in front of people.

That’s critical because if a show doesn’t do well (some of which depends on how well it’s promoted), Facebook can pull the plug. And Facebook hasn’t been able to get people to habitually come to Watch yet, though it’s certainly tried by tinkering with formats and promotional tactics.

That outcome is one that a CNN or Fox News, two of the launch partners, can weather relatively easily because they already have big, established video operations. But publishers with smaller ones may have to hire new staffers or teams, only to have to dismantle them if the show is canceled. And subscription-driven publishers also may see less in it for them when they’re trying to get people to come back to their own sites and become paying readers.

It can take a while for a news show to accumulate an audience, which is why on television, they traditionally get more time to prove themselves. But on a new platform with a new format, no one knows how to define success.

The lack of guaranteed promotion, uncertain compensation if a show was canceled and changing strategy was why at least one publisher opted out. “The number one thing is, is there going to be audience to watch these shows,” the publisher said. “They’ve pushed all the risk back to publishers.”

It’s just another reminder of who’s really serving who.

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