Might Facebook Become a Video Programmer?

Video ads could set the stage for more content

Facebook has finally entered the video ads business in a big way.

After multiple delays, Facebook last week rolled out a test of its autoplay ads to a select group of users. And the company clearly is thinking big, based on a deck that's been circulating which articulates the company's ambitions to challenge TV (not to mentioned these new ads $2 million price tag).

The move raises an interesting set of questions. After the guaranteed user screaming, protest pages and mass threats of never using Facebook again (it is Facebook after all), when people get used to autoplay video on the site, does Facebook start to take things further? Does the company start to become a massive video distributor? A Web video hotbed that could challenge YouTube? Or an actual programmer?

Given Facebook's desire to not let Twitter run away with the whole social TV thing, it's easy to imagine the company looking to get cozier with TV. SportsCenter highlights would make sense in your News Feed, as would NFL clips or even live March Madness games. One could easily see the new CNN striking deals to distribute and socialize its originals. While messy, the market for quality pre-roll video ads is strong. Facebook could command Hulu-esque CPMs while promising a much larger reach. (It does, after all, boast of a billion users, who happen to be quite social.)

The company has tried this before, to a much lesser degree. Few remember that when Facebook launched its Open Graph, it wasn't just the Washington Post News Reader that started clogging readers' News Feeds. Facebook had rolled out a Hulu app that aimed to drive up viewership by passively alerting users about what their friends were watching on the site. ABC never liked the idea, and it eventually died. 

Facebook hasn't shown much interest in becoming a programmer. The company never hosted a NewFront, and most execs there don't see it as a priority. But, in a less noticed story from last week, huge YouTuber Ray William Johnson signed a deal to launch an original series exclusively on Facebook, per Video Ink.

That was eye-opening, as so few programmers have tried such a thing. The one that comes to mind for me was a series produced by Ashton Kutcher's production firm Katalyst Media. It was so long ago that Slide (!) was involved. 

The Johnson series could be a one-off from a performer that just doesn't like working with YouTube. Or it could be the sign of something looming. Many in the industry, including investor Mark Suster, wonder if Amazon could build a true YouTube challenger. But couldn't Facebook? Wouldn't YouTube's Multi-Channel Networks (MCNs) love a lifeline from another giant, socially infused platform? And wouldn't Facebook love to blunt Google?

"I don't know about that," said one Hollywood exec I spoke to on this theory. "Facebook is more like Google. They have a platform approach. I could see them trying to stimulate the programming environment. But I don't see Facebook as a programmer."

Still, another digital video executive said it was easy to connect the dots, adding, "It seems to make a lot of sense the way that the Web video market is exploding."

One caveat, however: the MCN business is already a tough one. It's fair to question whether the money is good enough for Facebook. And who knows if Facebook wants to build out its own player and risk alienating YouTube (people already view tons of YouTube clips on Facebook).

It's also possible that Facebook may want to take one thing at a time, and right now, autoplay ads may be enough. The company was, in some folks minds, slow, even reluctant to get serious about mobile. That is, until they got real serious.