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Snapchat Shows: Inside the Plan to Reimagine TV for the Mobile Era

Variety logo Variety 5/23/2017 Andrew Wallenstein
© Provided by Variety

When Elisabeth Murdoch said goodbye to the family business in the wake of the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal in 2014, there was considerable anticipation regarding her next career move. The safe bet was that she’d find something to do in the television industry, where she had cranked out global hit series formats from “MasterChef” to “Big Brother” for Shine Group, which she’d sold to her father for $675 million.

But when Murdoch resurfaced in 2015, she focused her programming savvy not on TV but on a single digital platform: Snapchat.

Her new venture, Vertical Networks, has produced only for the Venice, Calif.-based messaging app, and includes a trio of so-called Snapchat Shows, a short-form video format exclusive to the Snapchat platform. As Murdoch sees it, the seismic shift a new generation of younger viewers is making from TV to mobile can no longer be ignored.

Art Streiber for Variety

“I don’t think there are many other people at the vanguard of this platform creating content,” she says. “But it’s hard to deny the momentum and success Snapchat has with such a huge audience.”

Murdoch may be all in on Snapchat, but there’s a line forming quickly behind her that’s made up of at least a dozen major media companies ready to place bets of their own on Snapchat Shows. The format is attracting the participation of star talent like Jimmy Fallon and the production auspices of proven TV hit makers like A&E and BBC. And after more than a year of experimentation, the performance of Snapchat Shows has blown past internal expectations enough to warrant its aggressive expansion within an app that reaches 166 million daily active users worldwide.

Snapchat’s top content execs shared the next steps in their plan with Variety, including the recruitment of James Corden to star in a Snapchat Show of his own, an unscripted series in which he jokingly attempts to pick his own replacement for his “Late Late Show With James Corden” on CBS. Given the viral afterlife of “Carpool Karaoke,” Corden understands why he could be a good fit for Snapchat Shows. “When you see our numbers online and stuff, I get it,” he says.

Conan O’Brien is also coming to the platform, as a producer of the first animated series on Snapchat Shows. But the expansion is far from limited to late-night talent; later this year, NBC News is expected to launch the first Snapchat Show that will offer daily news reports.

Snapchat has been emboldened to push deeper into news after experiencing success with a topical program of its own creation: “Good Luck America” — the first Snapchat Show to launch, in January 2016 — which has averaged 5.2 million viewers per episode in its second season to date, a leap of 53% over its first season. The stat is among the few the company is willing to share as evidence of why it’s so bullish on Snapchat Shows.

New partners are also coming aboard: Discovery Networks has become the latest Snapchat Show partner; this summer a “Shark Week” extension will be the first of multiple projects to come from the cable programmer. With plans in place to quadruple the number of shows already running on the platform each week from five to 20 by the end of the year, Snapchat is also expected to announce eventually that Snapchat Shows will get a section of its own inside Discover, the umbrella brand for the app’s content offerings (and no relation to the cable network).

It’s part of a broader evolution in the coming months, sources say, that aims to make content a more central part of the Snapchat experience — a function that tends to get overshadowed by the app’s primary use as a messaging tool.

As evidenced by the presence of Snapchat Shows in some of the pitches made by programmers at upfront presentations last week, Snapchat is not retrenching in the wake of the massive $6 billion market capitalization hit it took — down to just over $20 billion — on the heels of disappointing quarterly earnings, its first report after a much ballyhooed IPO in March. CEO Evan Spiegel saw his reputation as the reigning tech wunderkind tarnished amid criticism he mishandled a conference call with investors in which he came across as unconcerned about the competitive threat of Facebook.

But Nick Bell, VP of content at Snapchat, credits Spiegel for not letting short-term market turbulence cloud long-term goals.

Daniel Downey for Variety

“I’m really fortunate to be working with Evan on this,” he says. “I think one of the things he’s made clear to everyone at the company over the past 18 months is we’re building a business for the long term. One of the key things for us is to stick to the game plan, and content is a huge part of what we’re doing.”

The strategy that Bell, a former News Corp. exec, is overseeing is classic Snapchat: the same outside-the-box creativity and outsize ambition the company has brought to everything from those smiling-rainbow filters in your app to the Spectacles glasses that double as an eye-level camera. With Snapchat Shows, the company’s content team is seeking nothing less than to redefine the very experience of video entertainment on mobile devices.

***

It’s a Thursday morning in May at E!’s 30,000-square-foot production space inside the 30th floor of the 10 UCP building just outside Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. A year earlier, the network finished renovating the facility in order to merge the disparate operations of E! News and E! Online; now the combined entity pumps out video across a range of platforms.

That includes “E! News: The Rundown,” a Snapchat Show the network produces out of a corner of its newsroom, where a 47-inch flat screen hangs on its side on a wall. The unusual orientation enables playback of Snapchat’s signature vertical video style, itself a radical departure from the horizontal TV positioning most mobile content has adopted. “The Rundown” is a twice-a-week newscast in the loosest sense of the term. Each episode is just around three minutes long; think “Entertainment Tonight” for 14-year-olds, with bite-size morsels about young-skewing celebrities.

“Rundown” host Erin Lim, a spunky 26-year-old who sits on a stool talking to the camera as producers work quietly at desks around her, connects with her audience through humor edged with attitude. Noting that actress Gal Gadot served in the Israeli Army before getting the starring role in “Wonder Woman,” she exclaims, “Yeah, badass!”

But while Lim may be the center of the show, the real star of “Rundown” might be its hyperkinetic visual style. The cuts are constant. Episodes don’t so much play as hurtle ahead as if stuck in fast-forward. The vertical screen often divides in half and thirds with the same stacks of footage.

In short, “Rundown” looks nothing like an average E! broadcast. But in truth, it’s not entirely representative of Snapchat Shows either. Take another Snapchat Show, “Second Chance,” which A&E produces. Compared with the frenetic charms of “Rundown,” A&E’s unscripted series is almost leisurely paced, entirely composed of two young ex-lovers sitting in chairs against a spare white background and talking with each other about where their relationship went wrong. The hook: Unknown to one of them, the other aims to have them reunite.

It’s a mutual confessional with surprising emotional punch given its four-minute running time, with little of Snapchat’s typical graphic pyrotechnics beyond the words of their dialogue artfully drawn around them. (Most Snapchat Shows are heavily subtitled in large all-caps lettering, a nod to the many mobile users who watch with the sound turned off.)

Episodes of “Second Chance” have attracted as many 8 million unique viewers, Snapchat reveals to Variety. “Rundown” does better on an average audience basis, with more than 7 million viewers, triple the number from when it launched in September. (A caveat: These numbers are not nearly the same thing as a TV rating; a view on Snapchat means someone clicked on the show to watch, even if just for a second before bailing.)

Despite their differences, Snapchat Shows share certain core attributes. They’re all short-form videos, not entirely different from the kind of low-cost supplementary content TV networks have sporadically released on their own digital properties over the past decade as “webisode” extensions to existing programs.

However, what looks like a seamless stream is actually a linking of “snaps” — the basic atomic unit of Snapchat — segments of content that can last as long as 20 seconds. With a few taps of the thumb, users can auto-advance video to the next snap. And if they like what they’re seeing, they can subscribe to see more episodes. Because Snapchat is known for its vanishing videos, no catch-up binge-viewing is possible, though making previous episodes available is in the works.

For now, Snapchat Shows are mixed indiscriminately with the non-video-based content that still comprises the majority of Discover, which is populated by content from as many as 60 brands worldwide, from BuzzFeed to The New York Times. But video-based content from a few TV brands, including ESPN and Comedy Central, is also part of Discover, and among these offerings, Snapchat data yielded an important finding: When TV networks simply cut down their long-form programming to short-form bits for their Discover channels, the video didn’t perform nearly as well as when the networks fashioned their content more to the way users themselves post video on Snapchat.

When Comedy Central began crafting videos in a style that was truly “bespoke” — the industry jargon for content customized to fit a social platform’s particular parameters —they attracted bigger audiences. Rather than do what rivals like Facebook or YouTube have done with premium-content partners — break down long-form programming into digestible bites — Snapchat Shows is an attempt to pioneer a new aesthetic for truly mobile-native video entertainment to free itself of the conventions of TV.

Plenty of partners

Snapchat wants to grow its weekly lineup of shows from five to 20.

Current Snapchat Shows: The Rundown (E!), Good Luck America (Snapchat), Phone Swap (Vertical Networks), Second Chance (A&E), World of Dance (NBC), The Voice on Snapchat (NBC), Watch Party: The Bachelor (ABC), Planet Earth II (BBC), ESPN College GameDay (ESPN), One Shot (NFL), The NFL Show (NFL), Fallon (NBC), SNL (NBC), WWE Show (WWE)

Coming to Snapchat: NBC News daily newscast (NBC), James Corden unscripted series (CBS), Conan O’Brien-produced animated series (TBS), Yes Theory (Vertical), without Limits (Vertical)

Snapchat Show partners: NBCUniversal, ESPN, NFL, ABC, BBC, A+E, Discovery, Vice, MGM, Scripps, CBS, Turner, Vertical

“That’s what’s so interesting about mobile,” says Sean Mills, head of original content at Snapchat. “Most of what you see there today is largely repurposed from TV, but we’re at the very beginning of the creative community coming in with a unique approach. We’re trying to partner with people to drive that conversation.”

The Snapchat Shows partners, which include Vice, Scripps and ABC, work closely with what Snapchat refers to internally as an “innovation incubation” team that educates content owners on how to tailor their creative vision to the parameters of the Snapchat Show format. Those guidelines are informed by user data Snapchat shares with partners, sophisticated analyses capable of spotting trends at a snap-by-snap level. “Snapchat has a strong understanding of the audience it’s talking to,” says Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A&E Networks.

But education goes both ways, according to Vanessa Guthrie, partner lead for Snapchat Shows, who says the point of bringing in experienced content partners is to reap the benefit of their creative expertise. “It becomes a collaborative process, and not us telling them how we do something on the platform,” she says.

For a while, Snapchat pursued its content strategy alone, to mixed reviews. It took a short-lived stab at original programming in 2015 with a Snap channel on Discover that included a comedy series, “Literally Can’t Even,” produced and starring Sasha Spielberg (Steven Spielberg’s daughter). But the channel was eventually pulled from Discover, and the creative team behind its slate of shows was pink-slipped. Snapchat has gotten into a better groove with “Good Luck America,” the political-themed vehicle for former CNN correspondent Peter Hamby, who has taken the show from the presidential campaign trail to explore topical postelection issues.

Snapchat has needed Hollywood to fill out the rest of the inaugural slate of Snapchat Shows, but the truth is Hollywood needs Snapchat too. TV networks’ costly ratings erosion is particularly dire among the younger demographics that are flocking to Snapchat in unparalleled numbers. And Snapchat Shows have an especially strong reach among the younger users advertisers covet, with 75% of daily viewers between the ages of 13-24.

Snapchat is getting into the content game because it wants to keep its user base inside the Snapchat ecosystem (and away from competitors) for as long as possible; the average Snapchat user returns to the app 18 times a day.

Yet many of the Snapchat Shows partner networks are hoping that young consumers who never engaged with their programs on linear TV will get a taste on Snapchat that will lead them to linear. Snap-commissioned Nielsen research enables that hope: Discover partners experienced a 16% increase in the average monthly reach of their TV audience compared with a 5% decrease in the six-month period prior to the partnerships.

Rob Hayes, executive VP of digital at NBC Entertainment, has seen the Snapchat Shows halo shine firsthand. When Generation Z favorite Miley Cyrus joined the cast of NBC’s “The Voice,” the network created a Snapchat Show offshoot to run a few weeks before the series to bring the pop star’s young fans back to TV. “We realized that the demographic that was interested in Miley may not be traditional viewers,” he says, crediting the TV show’s ratings uptick to its Snapchat support.

CEO Evan Spiegel, left, wants content to be a bigger part of the Snapchat experience. The strategy is led by Nick Bell, VP of content, middle; Sean Mills, head of original content, right, reports to Bell.

Spiegel: Rex/Shutterstock; Bell/Mills: Courtesy of Snapchat

There’s currently a 50-50 split between originals and derivative work among Snapchat Shows. One such derivative, “The Voice on Snapchat” — a mini-spinoff of the hit NBC singing-competition series — enables a separate contest from the one that plays out in prime time. More than 20,000 contestants recorded themselves singing on the app for 10 seconds to vie for prizes.

If NBCUniversal seems especially immersed in Snapchat Shows, that’s not a coincidence. The conglomerate invested $500 million two months ago in Snapchat’s IPO, part of an arrangement billed as a “growing partnership.” Even more series are on the way from the NBCU portfolio.

The ratio of derivative to original IP on Snapchat Shows will begin to tilt more to the latter as many other TV formats, including scripted comedies and dramas, get a tryout. There are 100-plus projects in development, with 20-30 being piloted. Gaining rights to live sports is not under consideration, according to Mills.

What might seem like a marketing exercise today could very well function more like a distribution point tomorrow as more TV networks embrace a more multiplatform orientation.

“[CBS Corp. CEO] Les [Moonves] said clearly last year that we are no longer simply a broadcast network. We are a premium content company that distributes on every platform,” says Jim Lanzone, chief digital officer of CBS Corp.

That kind of thinking practically casts Snapchat in the role of next-gen MVPD, a distributor that aggregates content and typically pays billions of dollars in rights fees. But that’s a far cry from Snapchat Shows’ economic model. The company doesn’t license any content; its partner networks fund the shows themselves and split the ad-sales revenues with Snapchat.

Snapchat Shows gives the messaging app the opportunity to start selling a new ad unit that’s expected to fetch higher prices than it can get from existing Discover ad units. Currently the Snapchat Shows format carries three 10-second mid-roll ads, though that may change. Sean Corcoran, executive VP and executive director of the Americas at Mediahub, part of the MullenLowe agency, praises the company for its experimentation. “Snapchat has been re-inventing the types of ads that brands need to utilize to get the attention and engagement of a younger demographic,” he says. “Typical mobile ads just won’t cut it in these environments.”

Advertising isn’t necessarily the only way content owners can make money. True to her roots as a global format peddler, Murdoch is already shopping TV-size versions of some of the Snapchat Shows coming out of Vertical Networks. Dating series “Phone Swap,” in which a prospective couple gets to examine each other’s mobile devices before hooking up, just launched, and the company has two more shows coming this summer.

While Snapchat Shows is restricted to the U.S. for now, that likely won’t last long. The company is actively working on localized content for a number of regions; Discover is already spreading across the globe, with the company disclosing for the first time that the Middle East will be the next region to get the format: An Arabic version of Discover starts there this week.

Global growth will come under scrutiny in the coming months as Snapchat tries to shake off a Wall Street wallop that dropped its stock 25% in after-hours trading recently. A number of underwhelming indicators triggered the selloff, including the slowing of its daily-active-user growth. Then there’s the Facebook factor, with the social-media giant seeming to have copied enough elements of Snapchat products in recent months to raise concerns that the erstwhile messaging service is being beaten at its own game.

Mills knows that in success, Snapchat Shows could just end up the next thing Facebook implements on its own platform. But he believes that forging ahead with more innovation is the best strategy. “If we do this right and it works, I’m certain that people will copy us, and there’s nothing we can do about that,” he says, “except just accelerate the process and get further ahead.”

Correction: An earlier draft of the story misstated the audience size of “Good Luck America”; this Snapchat Show averaged 5.2 million viewers per episode.

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