Viewpoint: Streaming Towards Disaster?

Here’s a little quiz for you. Which of the following doesn’t describe one of the original programmes Facebook has announced for its Watch video streaming service?

  • Children telling professional chefs how to cook dishes
  • A reality series following people on the day they move to a new house
  • A hunt for the world’s most delicious cheeses
  • A blind dating show where contestants meet in virtual reality
  • Celebrities fact-checking their own Wikipedia pages

No matter what you guessed, the list should give you an idea of the standard of video content that Facebook seems to be aiming for – micro-budget series that would normally be found filling a five-minute slot on morning television or attracting a small following on YouTube.

Despite supposedly being the launch of its assault on traditional TV channels and an attempt to place itself up among big streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, Facebook Watch feels decidedly small time. While there are some well-known brands attached to the effort, including National Geographic, NASA and Hearst, the only programming that seems likely to attract a significant audience is Facebook’s stream of live Major League Baseball games once a week.

Facebook Watch’s big launch has arrived amongst a flurry of activity by tech firms seeking to secure their place in the pantheon of streaming video content. Earlier this week, Apple announced it would be spending $1bn (£776m) on original video content for its streaming services, despite its first original program, Planet of the Apps, proved a critical dud and failed to find an audience. First on Apple’s shopping list was hiring Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who joined the company from Sony’s entertainment arm and will be steering Apple’s investment in original content.

While $1bn may seem like a sizable investment, it’s a far cry behind the $6bn and $4.5bn Netflix and Amazon will be spending in 2017, respectively. Both companies, which are considerably more advanced in their development of streaming and original programming, have also been on a hiring spree lately, but while Apple has been picking up executives with entertainment experience, Netflix and Amazon have been focusing on creative talent.

Last week, Amazon signed an overall deal with Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead comic series. Kirkman has served as an executive producer on the television adaptation of the comic, now heading into its eighth season, as well as spin-off Fear The Walking Dead and Outcast, a Cinemax show also based on a comic book by Kirkman. The deal will see Kirkman and his production company Skybound Entertainment develop television projects exclusively for Amazon’s Prime Video.

“At Skybound Entertainment we strive to tell the best stories in the most unique and creative ways in an effort to always break new ground,” said Kirkman. “A forward-thinking company like Amazon is the perfect home for us. Their new foray into genre fiction has us at peak optimism for what can be accomplished during this unprecedented partnership.”

Not to be outdone, Netflix has also snatched up its own comic creator, acquiring Mark Millar’s Millarworld portfolio of comics, some of which have already been adapted into films like Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service. The deal is Netflix’s first-ever acquisition, and will mean that future comics produced by Millarworld will also bear the Netflix label.

Netflix has also secured the services of Shonda Rhimes, the writer and producer of television juggernauts like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. The multi-year production deal ends Rhimes’ 15-year relationship with Disney’s ABC Studios, and came just days after Disney announced plans to launch a pair of streaming services which would result in much of its content disappearing from Netflix’s screens.

But even with all these high-profile deals, Netflix and Amazon haven’t found a flawless approach to producing or securing content. Netflix boasts some huge hitters like Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things and House of Cards, but it has also sunk money into series that have failed to make much of a cultural or audience impact. Have you been watching No Second Chance, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, Tales by Light or Between? Probably not.

And when it comes to padding out its catalogue with low quality programming, Amazon is particularly egregious. Recent additions to its UK streaming service include 2 Dudes and a Sweet Prince, a documentary series about two roommates and their cat, and a three-hour video of an artist drawing a picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

All this high-profile sniping between major companies while the channels they control get filled up with low quality content might feel familiar to you. Back when the internet first started to have an impact, we were told that “content is king”, and firms like Yahoo, AOL and others bought up websites, blogs, online magazines and more in the hope of securing a lasting audience.

Then, when the launch of smartphones gave us the app store, tech companies raced to attract developers and fill up their digital shelves, even when many apps were simply low-grade copies of already successful ideas or brands with little idea of what an app should contain.

This streaming goldrush was almost inevitable, given the rise of mobile video and the success that marketers have seen from video advertising. But unlike website content or app development, creating a slate of high-quality movies and series to populate a streaming service requires a huge amount of money, and thousands of people.

Tech companies aren’t just competing among themselves either – traditional television channels and movie studios have also been investing in online streaming. While some efforts have failed, like NBC’s Seeso streaming service, which was announced to be shutting down earlier this month, others like the BBC’s iPlayer or HBO Go have flourished.

The world of streaming video is vastly more complex than some of the areas that tech has attempted to take on before, with many more entrenched players who are fighting back hard. And especially when it comes to original programming, tech firms need to be less worried about being first, and more about creating something worth watching.

Oh, and if you were wondering which of those Facebook shows was fake? The answer is none of them.