Silicon Valley’s sudden obsession with making TV shows

Facebook and Snapchat are encroaching on Netflix's and Hulu’s core business.

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    Just as channel surfing was replaced by binge watching, so is "Netflix and chill" about to give way to something newer and less romantic. Facebook and Snapchat are racing to claim their shares of the television pie, and in the process they could shake up the very definition of TV. Their plans are still foggy, but it's clear that mobile and social television is the next big Silicon Valley obsession.

    Leading the charge is Snapchat, which so far has the most well-thought-out approach. The company has already launched several shows within its app and has specific guidelines for what content should look like. Episodes typically run between three and five minutes long and are presented in a vertical, full-screen format. Snapchat Head of Original Content Sean Mills told Engadget that the company thought carefully about how people use their phones and that it had taken time to observe its users' behavior before coming up with a slate of shows. "We've learned a bunch of things about how people tell stories to their friends and some of our media partners have learned about how to create content," he said.

    The company's findings taught it how to keep its audience engaged, especially now that so many things are vying for our attention. "You have an audience that has a thumb hovering over the screen," Mills said. "There's not really a lot of time for slow builds and establishing shots." By design, Snapchat's shows have plots that move at breakneck pace so that people don't get distracted by an incoming alert or message.

    That attention to behavior has paid off. Its political commentary show Good Luck America, which began as an experiment to learn what viewers like, has seen its audience grow by more than 50 percent since its first season. The company says GLA now reaches about 5 million average unique viewers per episode.

    And with good reason: Snapchat shows are easy to watch while waiting for a bus or a train, or let's be real, on the toilet. I don't have to flip my phone to landscape mode, and each episode is the perfect length for a quick break. I especially enjoyed Phone Swap, which sets up blind dates for couples, during which the pairs are made to go through each other's phones. It's just the type of reality TV drama I live for.

    Like your friends' Snaps, these episodes are temporary and only last for about 48 hours before disappearing into the ether. But that won't be the case forever. Mills said the company is considering creating scripted TV and perhaps even offering full seasons that are always accessible. Right now, though, the focus is on refining the format as the team continues to work in an experimental phase.

    For Snapchat, it's not about repurposing existing material to fit your phone's screen. "We're reimagining what mobile television should look like," Mills said. That means the company may run into some challenges along the way. For instance, it's currently not easy to keep track of upcoming shows on Snapchat. But Mills and his team are aware of the problem. "You'll see a bunch of changes happen over the course of the next year that will address some of that stuff," he said. Mills didn't elaborate on what those updates would bring, but a schedule for upcoming shows is an important first step in improving awareness. Personally, I would love to know when to expect the next episode of Phone Swap instead of having to remember or chance upon the clip when I open the app.

    Despite the challenges it faces, Snapchat's experiments so far have been more inventive than its competitors'. For example, Apple's efforts have been far less creative. Its debut original is a reality show called Planet of the Apps. The first episode is free on Apple Music for now, but you'll have to subscribe to watch the remaining five. Like typical TV shows, each episode runs roughly 50 minutes (although it feels longer). Apple hasn't bothered to try anything different here. The most creative part of POTA is an eye-catching escalator that's a spin on an elevator pitch. Apple is continuing to play it safe with its next series, the already-popular Carpool Karaoke, the next season of which is set to premiere next month.

    Facebook is keeping mum about its plans for original content. We've heard the social network is willing to shell out big bucks for Hollywood-quality programming, that the episodes will vary in duration and that it may be embedding videos and TV shows into your News Feed. It may even be working on a streaming TV app. Beyond that, though, Facebook's strategy remains an enigma.

    However, there are benefits for users to watching TV shows on Facebook. We already take to the social network to share our views on latest episodes, and that sense of community could make for an even more engaging viewing experience. At VidCon last month, Facebook's Vice President of Product Fidji Simo said her team learned from the current Live video service that when video is paired with social functionality, it allows people to bond over video content in a way that the company hadn't seen before.

    It also makes sense that the social networks want to invest in original content. After all, their video platforms are already rife with brands and personalities broadcasting their own streams. Scripted, scheduled programming could not only let users watch on their own time but also keep them in the apps longer. Creating exclusive, unique TV shows can also attract new users -- a strategy that has worked well for Netflix. In fact, according to Snap, "Shows are drawing a huge, highly engaged audience -- and we're just getting started." Apple is no doubt looking for the same subscriber boost that quality original content can bring.

    Given the huge amount of money each company is throwing behind scripted programming, made-for-social TV is undeniably the next frontier. Who will dominate the market remains unclear, but regardless, it looks like our social media feeds will soon be home to a lot more than just cat photos and photos of our friends' babies. And that's a good thing.

    Cherlynn is reviews editor of Engadget. She led a mostly unexciting life in Singapore, her home country, until she came to New York in 2012. Since then, she's earned her master's in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and covered smartphones and wearables for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide. Life is now like a Hollywood movie, with almost as many lights and much more Instagram. And also more selfies.

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