Tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google taking on television

Facebook is eyeing shows attractive to people in their mid-teens up to mid-30s, along the lines of frothy fare such as Pretty Little Liars (above).
Facebook is eyeing shows attractive to people in their mid-teens up to mid-30s, along the lines of frothy fare such as Pretty Little Liars (above).PHOTO: FREEFORM

NEW YORK • Apple has more than US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) budgeted for original programming, Facebook wants its own version of Scandal and Google is ready to spend up to US$3 million an episode on a drama.

The three digital giants have signalled to Hollywood that they are serious about entering a television landscape that Netflix and Amazon shook up just a few years ago.

Their arrival will make an already hyper-competitive industry even more ferocious. This year, there are expected to be more than 500 scripted TV shows, more than double the number six years ago.

Although there have been some signs that the industry's output may plateau - cable companies such as A&E and WGN have said they are getting out of the scripted TV business - the entry of Apple, Facebook and Google into the fray almost guarantees that the volume of shows will continue to grow, even as viewers grapple with a glut of programming and an expanding number of streaming platforms.

With the prospect of a flood of tech money about to rush in, Hollywood has welcomed the news.

"If you ask the creative community if we're going to be competitive, the answer is yes," said Mr Robert Kyncl, chief business officer at YouTube, which is owned by Google.

Still, many in the industry are taking a believe-it-when-we-see-it approach to the new players.

Netflix and Amazon have made successful forays into scripted entertainment, but some efforts by digital titans such as Microsoft and Yahoo have fizzled.

Scripted TV is enormously expensive, so any commitment to it must be sincere. From shooting on location to taking out insurance to paying actors, crew members, directors and writers, it is impossible to dive in without allocating plenty of cash, while also being patient enough to weather blows at a time when it is increasingly difficult to land a signature hit.

The moves also come amid a fierce arms race for content. Netflix recently poached Shonda Rhimes from ABC, whose parent company, Disney, is preparing its own standalone streaming services.

But Apple's wealth and its willingness to commit resources have sent shock waves through the industry. Two months ago, the company chose Sony's TV studio heads, Mr Jamie Erlicht and Mr Zack Van Amburg, to lead its programming efforts.

The pair were certainly regarded in Hollywood as talented studio executives, having shepherded hit series such as The Crown, The Goldbergs and Breaking Bad. But their move to Apple - and their programming budget of a little more than US$1 billion - has suddenly made them among the most powerful executives in TV.

That budget also puts them on a par with the most elite programmers in TV. FX, which makes shows such as American Horror Story and Fargo, has a programming budget of around US$1 billion. HBO's budget is believed to be around US$3 billion and Netflix will spend about US$6 billion on content this year.

Mr Erlicht and Mr Van Amburg started at Apple a few weeks ago. In the coming months, they are expected to hire a few dozen people as they staff up at the Culver City, California, offices they share with Beats Electronics, which Apple acquired for about US$3 billion in 2014.

It is not clear how people will be able to watch or pay for Apple's original programmes. Without any current acquisitions, it will take at least a year for any of the company's projects to be ready for the viewing public.

The entertainment drive is also unique from Apple Music - programmes such as Planet Of The Apps and Carpool Karaoke are available on the service - and it is possible that a new app will be made to stream the new original series.

Apple declined to comment for this article, but it should not be long before Mr Erlicht and Mr Van Amburg begin competing for projects, most likely to be made by outside studios at first. And there are already plenty of projects on the market, including a highly coveted new series about morning TV shows starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.

With the amount of money at its disposal, Apple could easily have more than a dozen original series.

But as Apple starts to gear up, Facebook is well on its way.

The company's Hollywood development team is led by Ms Mina Lefevre, previously of MTV. Facebook has told people in the industry that it is willing to spend US$3 million to US$4 million an episode on new programming, said a person familiar with its plans. That kind of spending would put the company on an equal footing with many broadcast and cable networks.

And while many new entrants into scripted TV want big shows with mass appeal such as Game Of Thrones or Emmy-bait such as Homeland, Facebook has a more targeted plan.

It has indicated it wants shows that are attractive to people in their mid-teens up to mid-30s, along the lines of frothy fare such as The Bachelor, Pretty Little Liars and Scandal. Those shows generate plenty of talk on social media platforms and Facebook executives are apparently dedicated to programming that they believe will ignite conversation on the social network.

Unlike Netflix, which releases all episodes of its series at once so they can be binge-watched, Facebook is expected to release episodes on a more traditional schedule (it is unclear whether that will be once a week). Facebook also plans to have "mid-roll ads", or brief commercials, during episodes.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.

The social network has unveiled a Watch tab, where users can find original series and other video content that will be less expensive to make.

YouTube is in the process of greenlighting series.

Like Facebook, the Google- owned video site is focused mainly on series that appeal to people aged 16 to 35, said a person briefed on the plans.

YouTube executives have said they will spend up to US$2 million an episode on a comedy, and more than US$3 million on a drama, this source said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google taking on television'. Print Edition | Subscribe