Millennial startup Mic sold itself to Bustle Digital Group for a reported $5 million, a fraction of the $60 million it raised, after financial problems including the impact of Facebook canceling a video show.
But the Mic situation reveals broader challenges with the Facebook-funded shows, and the ongoing relationships between publishers and the social media giant.
Mic was one of eight publishers, along with the likes of CNN, ABC News, and Fox News, that Facebook picked to produce its first slate of news shows for its YouTube rival Facebook Watch. Facebook was reportedly spending $90 million to signal it was taking news seriously after coming under fire for letting fake news spread on the platform. The first shows were announced in June and rolled out during the summer.
Later in the summer, Facebook announced a second batch of funded news shows, from the likes of Bloomberg, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, and PBS NewsHour.
At the time, Facebook said, “‘Mic Dispatch’ reveals the world as we see it: complicated, diverse and full of potential. Mic correspondents on this new, twice-weekly show go beyond the headlines to profile the underrepresented, the problem-solvers and the provocateurs.”
The funding amounts varied. Mic reportedly was going to be paid $5 million over a year. But “Mic Dispatch,” airing two episodes a week lasting around 15 minutes long each, was inconsistent in its audience. Early on, three episodes cracked the 1 million views mark. Recent episodes have routinely had under 100,000 views. The show itself had about 85,000 followers.
In contrast, daily shows Fox News’ “Fox News Update,” CNN’s “Anderson Cooper Full Circle,” and ABC News’ “On Location” have hundreds of thousands of followers each and have regularly been getting a few hundred thousand views per episode. Business Insider’s show Business Insider Today has around 290,000 followers.
Those shows air daily, which could give them an advantage because they have that much more opportunity to be seen and gain an audience. The companies also have big platforms of their own on which to promote their shows, something Mic doesn’t have.
But a big question from the get-go with the news shows was how big an audience they would be able to get, given the Watch video section, Facebook’s bid for TV ad dollars, was only about a year old and didn’t have an intentional audience. Most people only ended up watching Watch shows because they were promoted in their feeds.
Some publishers put aside those concerns given they were getting paid by Facebook to make the shows, limiting their risk. But a common complaint among Watch publishers is that except for some promotion early on, Facebook did little to get attention for the shows. “They could put it in front of a billion people if they chose,” said one.
In addition to organic view counts, which Facebook counts at three seconds, Facebook also is looking at nonpublic numbers such as view time and return visits in deciding whether to renew the shows, sources said.
Facebook didn’t set performance requirements for publishers, making it hard to gauge if their show was satisfactory to the platform, and it reserved the right to cancel shows at various points during the contract period, publishing sources said. “We’re given no metric they’re trying to hit,” said one.
Mic has emerged as a poster child for publishers’ overly relying on Facebook for traffic, only to see their audiences tumble when Facebook changes its priorities. Many publishers saw their Facebook traffic drop in January when Facebook decreased the amount of news content that users see in the news feed.
Mic continued to rely on Facebook for its social following, despite efforts to pivot. In the case of the Watch show, Mic retooled its newsroom around it, with all of 25 people working on it. The show was owned by Facebook, so Mic couldn’t make additional money off the show by licensing it somewhere else. (Mic execs didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Ultimately, even though Facebook is paying publishers for Watch, the experiment shows the risks of relying on a platform whose strategy is constantly evolving. The news shows are an initiative of Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, and are a small part of the larger Watch section, which has been favoring entertainment shows tied to celebrities with built-in audiences. Adding to the uncertainty, Brown repeatedly used the words “test” and “experiment” when describing the news shows.
“It’s a classic example of disorganization there,” one Watch publisher said. “I just don’t think any of them will be renewed.”
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