Facebook Prepares To Launch New Video Streaming Service

Aug 31, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Another streaming video service debuts this week. This one is easy to find if you are one of the more than 1 billion people who use Facebook. In the news feed, there is now a button called Watch. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has sampled a few of the dozen shows there, and he says it's tough to tell yet if Facebook has created another distraction or re-defined the TV industry.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One of the shows featured on Facebook's Watch page is "Humans Of New York," a video version of the popular photo blog and books focused on unidentified New Yorkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUMANS OF NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There will come a time when I won't have an interest anymore in reading the newspaper. I can feel it coming.

DEGGANS: A few minutes later, we learned this woman has lost interest in the world because she has cancer. And that brings another concern.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUMANS OF NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The hardest thing for me was coming to grips with the fact that I might not outlive my husband, who's 11 years older and who's in the early stages of Alzheimer's. And I had wanted to be there for him.

DEGGANS: Poignant stories like this seem tailor made for Facebook's Watch platform. Episodes of "Humans Of New York" are 15 to 20 minutes long, but each person inside an episode tells stories that last just a few minutes. As of this morning, the first episode had more than 3 million views.

The Watch platform features original and repurposed content made by other companies. Facebook began rolling out the service to most U.S. subscribers today with contributors ranging from A&E networks and PBS "Frontline" to collegehumor.com and the Cincinnati Zoo. There's former "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe who profiles and rewards people doing great things in their community and an unscripted series called "Returning The Favor."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RETURNING THE FAVOR")

MIKE ROWE: It's pretty simple. We find them. We meet them, and then we surprise them.

DEGGANS: There's also "Ball In The Family," a docuseries about LaVar Ball, a brash-talking former pro athlete with three sons who just might follow in his footsteps.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BALL IN THE FAMILY")

LAVAR BALL: I am LaVar Ball, the father of three sons born to go pro. Three from the same daddy, and they're all superstars - un-Ball-lievable (ph).

DEGGANS: And there's "Strangers," a scripted comedy debuting soon about a young woman who rents a room in her Los Angeles home through an Airbnb-type service. Here, she and her friend tell a tenant who's considering financing a movie how to break gender and sexual orientation stereotypes in film.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGERS")

ZOE CHAO: (As Isobel) Well, I mean I personally would love to see a superhero movie written by a transgender person.

MEREDITH HAGNER: (As Cam) Yes, I love that.

MATTHEW OBERG: (As Dave) Why a transgender person?

CHAO: (As Isobel) Well, because I think they could really bring some interesting insight into, like, the world of a person who has to hide his or her identity from, like, the general public.

HAGNER: (As Cam) Right, which is the experience of, like, basically every transgender person born before last year.

DEGGANS: These shows are bite-sized experiences often focused on millennials. Each series has what Facebook calls a show page. Users who follow that page can get notifications on when new episodes appear. There you can also post comments or share with friends. Users don't pay to access shows on Watch. Facebook funded a small number of shows like Rowe's program and "Humans Of New York." Others earn revenue through ads or by featuring branded content. A representative for Facebook says the goal is to develop and distribute video that engages communities of users. So Mike Rowe's show will feature subjects suggested by fans on Facebook.

Initially the lineup feels like a cross between high-end YouTube videos and the early offerings of a new cable channel. Video platforms with original shows often need a hit to define their brand like "House Of Cards" did for Netflix. And I don't yet see a show like that on Watch. If the service finds a hit and builds a huge community of fans around it, that will transform Watch from a curious Facebook feature to a game-changing addition to the TV and video industry. I'm Eric Deggans.

MCEVERS: And we should say Facebook pays NPR and other news organizations to produce video that run on the platform. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.