How Facebook is “rethinking” the TV industry

Mark Zuckerberg is developing some human traits, it seems. The aloofness of the Facebook founder and CEO, as depicted by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, came across as arrogance. His lack of social graces was allied to an awkwardness in front of an audience. Now, having clearly studied Steve Jobs’ legendary keynotes, the 27-year-old is much happier selling his product. With 800m active Facebook users worldwide and a recent valuation of $80bn, that’s as you’d expect. Speaking recently at his company’s fourth F8 conference for developers, it became clear he’s growing up, and so is his site.

So what does this mean for TV? He mentioned several times how Facebook was “rethinking some industries” – a interesting choice of verb that connotes not just a radical shift, but perhaps a desire to collaborate rather than merely destroy. Where Google TV met a wall of resistance from those who perceived it as a direct threat, Facebook is deliberately positioning itself as a friend to the content aggregators (if not the content owners, which may yet prove a problem).

The real takeaway this year was Facebook’s evolving role as a content hub, with the CEOs of both Spotify and Netflix joining proceedings. Their contributions reminded us how important content such as music and movies is to Facebook, but also how important Facebook is starting to become for content companies.

It looks like Facebook is not focusing for the moment on becoming the channel through which that content is distributed. The recent experiments allowing users to rent certain Warner Bros movies directly via Facebook may be a sideshow. Facebook’s emerging role is as a hub or portal through which we discover great content, prompted and inspired by our friends. But we will still go off to a Spotify or a Netflix to actually consume that content.

This seems like a logical progression. Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who is also, lest we forget, on the board of Facebook, suggested that while his own site’s recommendations to view AMC’s TV series Breaking Bad had not yet prompted him to watch it, seeing on Facebook that a trusted friend was viewing it led him to finally check it out. Note too that he picked a TV show to name drop, not a movie.

Zuckerberg told Hastings that social recommendation could double Netflix’s growth. That may explain why Netflix’s CEO was prepared to take the flak over its recent restructure, if he believes that his company’s new Facebook app will be its secret weapon. As he put it, “social recommendation trumps an algorithm.”

Much of the discussion in TV circles around Facebook had been about the social activity that accompanies certain shows –such as X Factor or Glee or Top Gear. This is more than peripheral. Facebook argues not only that this kind of activity is increasing, but that it can deepen the engagement between an audience and a show. As part of its “rethinking” of the TV industry, then, Facebook can actually strengthen and enhance a traditional linear TV experience.

But Facebook’s ambition is bigger than this. As its European VP Joanna Shields told delegates at the IBC conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, ”Facebook represents the biggest opportunity the television industry has ever faced”. That was a risky statement: Too much hype can backfire if the audience don’t believe you. But social TV, and the role of discovery, proved such dominant themes at the accompanying exhibition that few were inclined to disagree. Facebook, it seems, is now changing the way TV shows are commissioned, made and marketed.


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