Facebook, Twitter, and the pivot to original content: From social TV to TV on social

Cory Barker

Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The next stage of social TV is here. Drawing on promotional discourses, I argue that Facebook and Twitter's shift from distributors of television network programming to their own original content is a natural extension of industry practice, but not a particularly meaningful development for fan participation and engagement.

[0.2] Keywords—Branding; Contemporary television; Liveness; Original programming

Barker, Cory. 2018. "Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social." In "Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries," edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26.

[1] Throughout the social TV era, Facebook and Twitter have been willing collaborators with the television industry, but mostly functioned as new platforms for television networks to distribute and promote their programming. In summer 2017, after numerous experiments and endless speculation, both companies officially announced plans to develop and distribute exclusive original content (Petski 2017; Kafka 2017). While there are legitimate questions about whether or not people want to watch longer-form programming on social networks, this is a predictable next step for these companies—and for the social TV phenomenon as a whole.

[2] From the industry side, the social TV era has been built on idealistic participatory discourses. In this framework, social networks offer fans more direct access to not only peers, but also showrunners, stars, critics, and network executives. Live-tweeting, Facebook pages, and viral Tumblr posts all supposedly bolster the power and scope of fan feedback.

[3] However, the actual processes throughout this period have been, predictably, about formalizing Hollywood–Silicon Valley relationships and channeling fan activity toward practices that reaffirm core television industry strategies. Twitter became a central place for television-related conversation because live-tweeting inherently promotes live viewing, something networks are still desperate to reinforce. Nielsen's Social Ratings (, which tabulate Facebook and Twitter activity, are equally intended to legitimize live chatter so television networks can try to sell advertisers on the value of unique engagements. The proliferation of branded hashtags, showrunner Q&As, social games, and GIFs all position the television industry as cutting-edge and responsive to fan interests, but in reality just create additional opportunities for networks to further integrate their brands into our everyday lives. Despite the host of start-ups hoping to make it big since the social TV rush began in 2010, fan and industry activity has coalesced around just a few social spaces.

[4] For social networks, the proprietary owners of the majority of social TV data, a stronger push into original content is an attempt to more directly benefit from activity already taking place on its platforms. Facebook and Twitter have years of information about user habits—popular conversation topics, premium periods of activity, most shared material, and so on—that their respective executives believe can be parlayed into viewer attention for new programming. This algorithmically driven development process is similar to that of Netflix, another entity that first partnered with networks and studios to ease the transition to new protocols (streaming video) before pivoting to a more directly competitive relationship with legacy media companies.

[5] Yet, algorithms and big data aside, social networks are making the same move that companies have made during the maturation of each new distribution channel since the outset of television broadcasting. Networks licensed radio projects before creating their own material for a new visual medium. Basic cable channels moved from syndicated repeats and licensed films to more original offerings. Pay cable stalwarts HBO and Showtime experienced more cultural legitimation once they embraced scripted originals, and the same has recently been true of Starz and Cinemax, as well as Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube. The long narrative of television eventually bends toward distributors wanting to become producers so they can give viewers a reason to keep watching, subscribing, or, in this case, logging on. Social networks are simply following the script.

[6] In their respective announcements, both Facebook and Twitter call upon the common refrains about liveness and real-time engagement for fans. The introduction of Watch, Facebook's new hub for video content, much of it exclusively licensed, features a mission statement that calls for "Live shows that connect directly with fans," "Shows that engage fans and community," and "Live events that bring communities together" (Danker 2017). VP of Media Partnerships Nick Grundin said, "Our goal is to make Facebook a place where people can come together around video" (Petski 2017). Here Facebook speaks to the long-standing claim that television's fundamental ontological nature is defined by liveness and immediacy (Feuer 1983; Ellis 1982). Whereas television producers have implied liveness with on-screen chyrons or direct modes of address (Uricchio 2005), Facebook has been more explicit in its celebration of liveness, branding its pre-Watch video initiative as Facebook Live. Likewise, Facebook's repeated usage of the terms "fans" and "community" attempts to further foster what Nick Couldry (2004, 356) calls the "'shared' ritual center" so present in the experiences of both live broadcasting and real-time social networks. In a few promotional statements, Facebook Watch and its original content are pitched as for fans, and fandom is couched in watching live.

[7] While Facebook generally keeps the spotlight on what its Watch product means for consumers, Twitter is more open about what its desire to become a new 24/7 live content network could mean for its relationship with advertisers. As COO and CFO Anthony Noto said, "We're doubling down on our live premium content strategy—making sure that advertisers can reach an audience that's connected, influential, as an opportunity to be part of what's happening" (Castillo 2017). Noto hits many of the key buzzwords of social TV and digital media in general—live, connected, influential—but similarly leans on a basic television industry branding discourse by referring to Twitter's content as premium. The executive could just as easily be talking about HBO, AMC, or Netflix. That Twitter—or Facebook, which of course has the same goal with Watch—would pitch its live content to advertisers is not at all shocking; it exhibits the classic notion that networks (television or social) believe there is more money to be made in original programming.

[8] Twitter extends the broadcasting metaphor further with an ontological and organizational vision for its product. As Noto told BuzzFeed, "We think that is a great way to have the programming carried along with you during your day. Focus in on it when you hear something that's of interest, but then maybe not be 100% focused on it when it's not of interest. I did that myself during the debates" (Kantrowitz 2017). This idea of an always-on stream of content was in part inspired by Twitter's one-year deal with the NFL for digital streaming rights to Thursday Night Football in 2016 (for which it paid $10 million). Though Twitter lost the rights for Thursday Night Football in 2017, it is considering a twenty-four-hour sports network where highlights, live event coverage, and user tweets all exist in one place (Jarvey 2017a). Given that other partners include news outlets BuzzFeed, Bloomberg, Cheddar, and The Verge, it is likely that Twitter's sports network could be joined by other topical networks covering entertainment, technology, and finance (Jarvey 2017b). The idea, then, is to provide a skinny bundle of themed networks that are always on, complete with real-time social chatter. Or, as we have long known it: television.

[9] Amid the emphasis on fans, community, and connectivity in the press releases and public comments, there is little indication of how Facebook or Twitter plans to cultivate any of those things beyond the basic providing of a platform for conversation, bringing the content directly to the "digital water cooler" (Tryon 2013, 123) already in place.

Video 1. Promotional video introducing Facebook's new video initiative, Watch.

[10] Prior campaigns to distribute live content on Facebook and Twitter—including presidential debates and award show red carpet specials—have mostly functioned in the same way those formats would function on television, with an added ticker of real-time user commentary. The Facebook press release provides predictably vague promises, while simultaneously alleging that the company's shift in practice is primarily the result of meaningful user feedback: "We've learned from Facebook Live that people's comments and reactions to a video are often as much a part of the experience as the video itself. So when you watch a show, you can see comments and connect with friends and other viewers while watching, or participate in a dedicated Facebook Group for the show" (Danker 2017). Facebook's plan for community building appears to be just a comments thread underneath a video window. The company's first announced series is one starring TV personality Mike Rowe, where fans can potentially nominate members of their community, on the show's dedicated Facebook page, to be celebrated by Rowe for "doing something extraordinary" (Danker 2017). This faux-populism has been common throughout the social TV era, perhaps most notably with Amazon Studios' pilot seasons, where viewers were told that their star ratings and surveys would determine which new projects would make it to full series (Barker 2017). It is also the brand of do-good transformational social responsibility seen from television networks for decades, and from Facebook in recent years (Ouellette 2012, 62). What it is not, however, is an especially meaningful form of engagement or participation on the part of the audience.

[11] Twitter, meanwhile, is seemingly relying on the vernacular of its platform to inspire engagement among viewers of live content. In September 2017, Hollywood Reporter profiled BuzzFeed's morning talk show AM to DM, the first series to emerge from Twitter's original content plans. The show contains segments called "Fire Tweets" and "@ Us," both of which are pitched as "in-jokes that will only make sense to people who spend a lot of time on [Twitter]" (Barr 2017). The vision to make a show for what BuzzFeed's Ben Smith calls the "maniacs" on Twitter hints that it may be possible to translate the discursive contentions and minutiae from social TV—and social networks in general—into original programs. Yet, this strategy still fails to make room for fan voices beyond a host reading one of their aforementioned fire tweets.

[12] Facebook and Twitter's plans to shift from one type of network to another make sense for both companies in the larger scheme of television history. Original content strategies, backed by years of information about user habits and tastes, could expand Facebook's already-massive advertising generating machinery, finally give Twitter a path toward profitability, and further diversify their respective brands. The move also enables both companies to inch away from the fallout of the 2016 US presidential election, where they took—and continue to take—significant criticism for their role in the proliferation of harassment, hate speech, and fake news. Finally, the push toward original content will allow Facebook and Twitter to promote what one industry analyst proudly called "ambient digital video," a phrase that recalls ambient media and advertising's creeping encroachment into everyday spaces (Grainge 2008; Moor 2003).

[13] If the first generation of social TV products are any indication, Facebook and Twitter's originals will try to limit any fan conversation or activity that doesn't further the above end goals. For all the discourse about disruption and fan-driven community, both Hollywood and Silicon Valley continue to hold traditional views on engagement and participation.


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