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Breaking out of the social video box

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YouTube and Facebook have struggled to get users to see them as anything other than free social video platforms. Now they are releasing established movies and tv shows for free ad-supported on their platforms. Can the approach get them out of the social video box?

YouTube Premium no more

In late November, YouTube announced that its ‘Originals’ would no longer be behind the paywall. The not so surprising move marked a downsizing of scripted output by the platform and an admission that their premium model was not working.

Currently, YouTube Premium is $12/month and has exclusivity to the series Cobra Kai. Other than that, however, the subscription service’s main values are the ability to skip ads and access YouTube Music and Google Music. The move certainly seems like a setback when it comes to scripted content, but YouTube has other tricks up its sleeve.

Recently, the Google-owned social video giant added about 100 free-to-watch movies, such as Rocky, and Legally Blonde. YouTube has long allowed users to purchase TV shows and films, but now many titles will be available for free with ads. Unfortunately, although the two mentioned films are blockbusters from MGM, most of the other free ad-supported titles are obscure. YouTube says its selection will continue to expand.

YouTube’s director of product management, Rohit Dhawan, told AdAge:

“We saw this opportunity based on user demand, beyond just offering paid movies. It also presents a nice opportunity for advertisers.”

The company did not detail how revenue would be split between it and the studios. Google did, however, say that the ads will come from its existing general pool of ads that are placed against videos across the platform. Mr. Dhawan did say that in the future, advertisers might be able to sponsor individual titles.

YouTube isn’t the only social video site releasing established content on its platform for free.

Facebook is releasing an entire catalog of shows

Facebook announced it would make 268 TV episodes available, including the entire catalogs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. The social media giant even paid actors from the show, including Sarah Michelle Gellar, to promote the programs.

Facebook also released a new co-viewing feature that lets users watch a show or movie together in real time, from different screens. These ‘Watch Parties’ can be coordinated by any of its 2.2 billion users. Executives at the company hope that building more of a community will stop teens from turning away from Facebook.

Watch Parties could also help get more users to its Watch video portal. The feature has been a big priority for Facebook but has so far yielded poor results. Half of US adult Facebook users have never heard of ‘Facebook Watch’ according to a survey by The Diffusion Group. Another quarter said they had “heard of, but never used” it.

Facebook Watch’s failure to connect with users is a big problem for the company. The social giant plans to spend between $1 and $2 billion on content deals for Watch this year. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, even admitted on a conference call in Q3 2018 that “we are well behind YouTube.”

Will ad-supported movies on social platforms connected with users?

Netflix could have inspired YouTube’s attempt at using original content to bolster its subscription service. After all, YouTube’s CEO Robert Kyncl and VP of Content Partnerships Kelly Merryman are both former Netflix executives. However, they failed to persuade users to view YouTube in the same way they view Netflix. Now that the idea has failed looking outside the Netflix box and to ad-supported premium content could be a good move.

Ad-supported content is set for growth in 2019. Already we have seen several other platforms turn to it. Amazon introduced Freedive, and Sinclair introduced STIRR. YouTube and Facebook’s foray into ad-supported studio content appears to be like these other platforms.

However, persuading social video users to watch full-length movies on social platforms, where they typically watch vlogs and video shorts, still requires a change in their perspective. Whether they can pull it off or not remains to be seen.

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