With Twitter (TWTR) and Alphabet/Google's (GOOGL) YouTube having just unveiled big expansions of their video content efforts, and Facebook (FB) and Snap Inc (SNAP) just reported to be plotting expansions of theirs, this may have been the week where original content officially joined AI as a hot trend that many big-name tech firms feel they need to have some kind of major strategy for, lest they get left out.
That's very good news for Hollywood's content creators, and in some cases the studios that tech giants are working with. But for the tech companies themselves, the payoff could be very mixed.
During its first-ever appearance at the annual Digital Content NewFronts event, where big online video providers make pitches to advertisers, Twitter announced new deals for live shows with over a dozen content providers. The list includes the NFL, the MLB, the PGA, BuzzFeed, The Verge, Live Nation and most notably Bloomberg, which will create a 24/7 "breaking news network" that's distinct from its cable TV network and available only on Twitter.
The microblogging platform's shares rose 6% on Monday following news of the Bloomberg deal. Its latest tie-ups follow a 2016 deal with the NFL to stream 10 Thursday night games -- Amazon (AMZN) won the rights for the 2017 package -- as well as deals to stream NBA-related shows, a slew of less popular college sports events and the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Three days after Twitter's reveal, YouTube announced at the NewFronts that it will produce six free/ad-supported shows featuring the likes of Kevin Hart, Ellen DeGeneres and Katy Perry. The video giant has already been growing the original content library for its YouTube Red service, which provides ad-free YouTube and a music service for $10 per month. Bloomberg reports YouTube "will fund more than 40 original shows and movies" for Red over the next year, spending "hundreds of millions" in the process.
Facebook, meanwhile, was reported on Friday by Business Insider to be planning the launch of "roughly two-dozen" original shows, with the first batch due to arrive in mid-June. Both long-form and short-form content will be supported, with the material appearing in the Video section of Facebook's app (accessible through a dedicated tab). Presumably it will also appear on the company's new app for living room devices such as the Apple TV and Amazon's Fire TV hardware.
Facebook, hungry to slow down Snapchat's growth, is said to be particularly interested in "teen-centric shows." The company also seems interested in live sports -- in February, it was reported to have held talks with the MLB about streaming one live game per week -- and has reportedly "tapped A-list celebrities to star in some of [its] shows." For now, the company is directly licensing some shows, but it wants to eventually wants to rely solely on ad revenue-sharing deals with content creators.
Snap isn't standing still either. On Thursday, the company announced Food Network/HGTV parent Scripps Networks (SNI) will create original shows for Snapchat's Discover service. Scripps joins a stable of Discover video providers that includes NBCUniversal, ESPN, Turner, the NFL and A+E Networks. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported Snap is in talks to add CBS and Fox to its video partner list.
It added Snap "hopes to have two to three new episodes of original shows" airing each day by year's end, and that the shows will be just three to five minutes long. The company is running ads against its original videos, and reportedly splitting the revenue 50-50 with partners.
And while it's still early for the company, Apple (AAPL) is dialing up its efforts to provide original material to its 20 million-plus Apple Music subscribers. The WSJ reported in January Apple has talked with producers about buying rights to scripted TV shows, and has kicked around the idea of financing original movies. The company has already greenlighted a Late Late Show spinoff called Carpool Karaoke, as well as a semi-biographical series about Beats co-founder Dr. Dre.
All of these moves come as Netflix and Amazon continue spending lavishly on their original libraries. Netflix has set a $6 billion 2017 content budget, much of which will go into original (rather than licensed) material. JPMorgan estimates Amazon will spend $4.5 billion on content this year. Other notable players include Hulu and Verizon (VZ) , and indirectly -- given its growing reliance on its streaming services -- HBO.
The major declines seen in traditional TV viewing among younger age brackets, and the giant increases seen in "over-the-top" (OTT) video viewing on both smartphones and living room streaming devices, serve as a backdrop for this original content spending binge. The Boston Consulting Group estimates OTT content will account for 35% of all U.S. video viewing by 2018, up from just 14% in 2015 and 7% in 2012. YouTube now sees over 1 billion hours of viewing per day, and Netflix over 1 billion per week.
But from a user-experience standpoint, all this content isn't going to be on equal footing. Netflix, Amazon, Apple and YouTube's subscription services show their original fare ad-free, while free material on YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter feature ads. For short-form videos featuring just one or two ads, that's not necessarily a big problem, as YouTube can vouch. And it might not be that large of an issue for certain types of live content such as sports.
But for full-length shows and movies featuring a number of mid-stream ads are going to be at a real disadvantage relative to Netflix and Amazon's popular originals. Particularly since many consumers now take it for granted that they'll see such content ad-free when watching online.
Scale is also going to be a challenge for certain providers of ad-supported content. While Facebook and YouTube each have well over 1 billion monthly active users (MAUs), Twitter has just 328 million, and Snapchat has about 160 million daily active users (it hasn't given an MAU count). Ad partners are bound to pull the plug on content deals if they can't get enough ad revenue to justify the cost. The fact that Snap is focusing on shorter material that's relatively inexpensive to produce could allow it to sidestep this problem, but it could be harder for Twitter, especially since the company hasn't done a great job of showcasing the live content it has aired to date.
Likewise, YouTube Red might be compelled to pare its spending on originals if it can't significantly grow its subscriber count. The Verge reported in November that Red only had 1.5 million subscribers, a small fraction of the 100 million now claimed by Netflix and the 60 million-plus Prime subscribers Amazon appears to have. That said, Google has very deep pockets, and seems willing to absorb losses to grow Red for the time being.
And for everyone in this field, established or not, the massive increase occurring in the amount of original online content being financed against a relatively stable pool of high-quality creative talent is bound to increase deal costs. Back in September, The Hollywood Reporter ran a column observing (among other things) how studios and cable networks are worried about how Netflix's content spending is driving up prices. The way things stand today, it's not just Netflix's spending that's worthy of concern.
For these reasons, today's original content fervor could be followed by a shakeout. For example, Twitter, which is arguably better-suited to host video related to live events than other professional long-form content, might see some of its less ideal video partners bow out. And Facebook might find that it's a better platform for YouTube-like short-form professional videos than longer material that has to compete with ad-free Netflix and Amazon originals.
There will still be a lot of ad and subscription revenue to be made, given the long-term shift towards OTT video. But as with any gold rush, not every effort is going to pan out.