Facebook’s inroad into streaming media hides its best lights under cruddy user interface.
I assumed, that like much of what Facebook is known for these days, that Facebook Watch would be a steaming pile. I was shocked to find a fairly robust set of offerings. Unfortunately, find is the key word as Facebook does not make a visit to find your potentially new favorite show very welcoming.
Facebook jumped into the media streaming wars with an announcement in 2017. By 2018, the service looked mostly like it does today, and partnership deals for original and proprietary content had started to roll out.
If you can make the journey down Facebook’s deliberately obscure rabbit hole, there’s quite a bit interesting with the project.
So far, Facebook rings you up for exactly zero dollars. Further cementing the “we’re not quite sure exactly what we’re doing here” vibe, Watch gives its content away for free. Or at least as free as surrendering more of your highly monetized personal data to a company that demonstrably missuses that data can be considered free.
Press reports mention pre-roll and mid-roll ads…but I never came across any ads whatsoever. After watching three episodes apiece for what I must assume are the platforms biggest vehicles (Limetown, Sorry For Your Loss, The Birch) I have yet to see a single ad play. Zuckerberg largess, or another hint of a inconsistent roll out? You decided.
The videos on offer are embedded in Facebook’s site, instead of being mirrored on other hosting platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. The quality goes from 1080p high definition to 144p “you must be watching this on a tin can with strings” fidelity.
The player used is no-frills but solid. You can adjust feedback quality, captioning, and other settings…but you’ll need to log in to a Facebook account to get the more robust settings. You can pop the player out for picture-in-picture or run it in full-screen.
The service feels trapped in a weird limbo. It offers quite a bit of overlap with You Tube style content…but it also has some original shows with serious star power. Elizabeth Olsen (The Avengers), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) and Jessica Biel (The Illusionist) all headline dramas. Live-format shows feature Shaq, Ellen Degeneres, and Will Smith.
The originals definitely feel like they are coming into their own. Much like Hulu, it seems that Facebook Watch realizes you have to have a big draw to stand out. Reportedly, FB is willing to spend up to a million dollars a program to get their line-up off the ground.
Facebook Watch feels larval at this point. A couple months ago when I was reviewing The Birch, it was a hair-pulling nightmare to navigate. The service can’t make up its mind on how much to hide behind a FB account, so you can press one wrong choice and wind up getting sent to a login page. Their layout is also abysmal, aping the look of a FB newsfeed so that you have to scroll by pages of dross in order to find their original’s section and other navigation icons.
Watching Limetown, the experience has improved…as long as your on browser and not your phone. Good fucking luck finding what you want on your phone. The lack of ads and not-quite-structured layout make Facebook Watch a very uneven experience. I also experienced quite a few instances where pausing would crash/reload the episode. Switching video quality and screen size also would cause FB Watch to chuck its cookies.
Facebook Watch intrigues with possibility, but lacks the polish to become your go-to streaming experience. There’s too much YouTube, bargain-bin crud screaming for attention. It distracts from the actually decent material. You also have a very haphazard and ad-hoc set-up.
On top of the “not quite ready for prime time” format issues, you have the thorny questions of handing yet more valuable data to Facebook. You know, a company that feels like it would sell your kidneys out from under you when you weren’t looking. I’ve really enjoyed some of the programming; I’d rather eat glass than give Mark Zuckerberg more of my personal data to strip mine.