‘We have to make it work for our partners’: Facebook’s Fidji Simo on Watch

Facebook really wants Watch to work — and it trotted out one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during CES to show how committed the company is to its latest video initiative.

Fidji Simo, Facebook’s vp of product in charge of its video business, was joined on stage by actress Kerry Washington, who is producing one of Facebook’s first scripted series for Watch. Called “Five Points,” the short-form drama tells the story of five high school students in Chicago who witness a traumatic experience. Funded by and exclusive to Facebook, the show is produced by Washington’s production company Simpson Street and digital studio Indigenous Media.

Most of Simo and Washington’s conversation centered around “Five Points” and how Facebook envisions Watch as a place to combine original programming with social conversations about the content.

For instance, “Five Points,” which will focus heavily on LGBTQ and other social justice issues, will create custom Facebook groups around those issues so viewers can have conversations about the show and those topics before, during and after new episodes are released. The producers behind “Five Points” also plan to create custom profiles for characters to get audiences to interact with them, said Washington.

“I’m excited to be on the Facebook Watch platform because I wouldn’t want to put this piece out in the world without creating a space where discussion can live,” Washington said.

It’s a key point that Facebook itself has been making with Watch partners. Just like Facebook Live, Watch was developed as a way to get Facebook users to spend more time on Facebook. If Facebook can fund projects that also drive people to interact with others on the platform more, it’s a clear win for the company’s video plans.

Granted, away from the stage, there is plenty of skepticism among media companies that Facebook Watch will work. As several Watch partners have expressed in the past — and reiterated during CES — only a fraction of Facebook users are actually going to Watch. Most of the viewing still happens inside the news feed.

By bringing out a star such as Washington, Facebook was demonstrating that it remains committed to making its latest video initiative work.

“We have to make [Watch] work for our partners,” Simo said. “Obviously, there’s the creative angle, but there’s also the economic angle. We are committed to working with partners to make these shows work economically as well.”

One thing to look out for — and one thing two publishers privately expressed to Digiday — how Facebook defines partners going forward. “Five Points” is produced by two entertainment studios. As Facebook looks for bigger entertainment projects, it might leave out traditional publishers that it has previously paid in the past for content.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they go entirely direct and just buy content from producers,” said one publishing exec.

Meanwhile, when asked if they see Facebook and Watch as a legitimate threat, a YouTube exec also attending Facebook’s session very diplomatically said, “You gotta start somewhere.”


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