A black bear chased tourists in Yellowstone National Park on the weekend. It was captured on video. The video is 68 seconds long and SPOILER ALERT, nobody gets attacked, nobody falls, and the bear doesn’t dance. The bear video, like the famous pitch to TV executives on an episode of Seinfeld, is about nothing. The bear video has been viewed 10 million times on Facebook and not even 10,000 times on YouTube.
Facebook’s recommendation algorithm populates the Facebook news feed with autoplay, on-demand video and it is currently leading ever larger audiences to more content (even if that content is ultimately about nothing) than pay TV and YouTube combined. Just how is Facebook showing us the future of TV?
YouTube programming is primarily delivered on-demand by a keyboard and search, whereas TV programming is delivered via a remote control and program guide. Netflix programming is delivered on-demand, by remote control and viewing history.
These have all proven to be successful methods of content discovery, but moving forward, is the takeaway from the rapid success of Facebook video that search, schedule, program guides, and viewing history are now outdated ways to drive viewership?
Facebook video programming is driven by a combination of video autoplay built into the news feed (Facebook’s version of a program guide) and a touch-screen version of the TV remote control topped off by an algorithm that only Facebook understands fully.
One flick down my Facebook news feed/program guide from the bear video is another one minute video—a beautifully shot sports video of an Oracle-branded sailboat speeding, well almost flying, across the San Francisco Bay. SPOILER ALERT: nobody falls off the boat, nobody trips, and the boat does not flip over. This video has been viewed 7.1 million times in the last four days, and like the bear video, is largely about nothing. The Oracle catamaran is on track to surpass the two year old, #1 sailing video on YouTube in less than seven days.
Another flick down the Facebook news feed/program guide are five videos (five minutes of programming total) that according to Facebook were viewed 36 million times. The videos were all posted in the last four days—an average of nine million views/day.
These 36 million views on Facebook as of Tuesday, May 12 at 7:45 AM constitute a wild success. For comparison sake, here are some other big(ish) numbers:
- Super Bowl Sunday—as many as 118 million people will view the halftime show on TV
- Wednesday night—close to 12 million will watch Modern Family
- Thursday night—about 170,000 people will watch the LA Lakers on TV
- Saturday night—about 1 million people might view an epic UFC fight on TV
- YouTube – these same five videos received less than 10,000 views each
But this is early Facebook TV, an alpha version, and it’s already arguably bigger than pay TV and YouTube, outside of the Super Bowl. At 8:00 AM, I check the Facebook video news feed/program guide and I see that there is a new video about the war in Syria and another one about Hernandes scoring a goal for Inter Milan; both videos have more viewers than a Lakers game. Facebook’s program guide is an algorithm. A secret algorithm that delivers entertainment to more viewers than ESPN, HBO, ABC, NBC, CBS, Netflix, and all US TV networks combined.
Facebook’s program guide operates like the original two button remote control. You can select channel up or channel down, but that’s it. Just like TV, a swipe up and down the Facebook feed causes a new video to play automatically. Unlike TV, these new videos play from the start and not mid-stream. The Facebook programming guide is not driven by a schedule, but by an algorithm that takes into consideration friends, video popularity, advertising boosts, demographics, location, likes, and more.
Given the massive explosion of Facebook video programming—with shows that are often about nothing—it appears that the best programming guide we have come up with, so far, is basically a twenty-first century version of the original TV remote with a touch screen and channel up and channel down buttons. If we follow Facebook’s lead, this could mean the entire TV program guide could be thrown out to follow Facebook’s algorithm-based lead.
That’s obviously not happening anytime soon, but the ability of the algorithm to select videos that become massive hits could be a sign that viewers are overwhelmed by choice and just want to be told what to watch. It could just mean that they’re lazy. Or it could be a sign that Facebook’s algorithm is very, very smart.
Time will tell.