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Social media

Snapchat hopes to hook phone users with five-minute daily serials

Mystery stories with young female tech-savvy crime-solvers, reality shows about drag queens – the leading app for teenagers in North America hopes new series will engage users more

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 7:03pm

Smartphone app Snapchat has just launched a new feature that plunges the company into the fiercely competitive arena of scripted programming.

By offering more than a dozen original programmes – ranging from mystery stories with young, female, tech-savvy crime-solvers, to reality shows following the lives of emerging drag queens and social media stars – the company hopes the new content will attract more advertiser dollars and keep its fickle, young audience engaged.

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Viewers need only five minutes to watch one of the app’s original serialised offerings, which come from such established names as Mark and Jay Duplass and Riverdale writer Tessa Leigh Williams. Every series will have a continuing storyline and premiere a new episode daily to keep viewers hooked (unlike shared photos and videos, the series will remain on the platform after their runs).

But the real cliffhanger is whether the shows can help turn around the fortunes of Snap, which has struggled in its quest to reach profitability by 2019.

Despite double-digit revenue growth, Snap posted a US$353-million net loss in the second quarter and has seen its stock price sink more than 50 per cent since the start of the year. The number of daily active users for the app dropped two per cent from the first quarter, to 188 million, after the latest redesign of the app.

Analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson said in a research note that the company may need a new round of funding next year or risk running out of cash. Presenting a slate of short-form shows – called Snap Originals – that carry two six-second commercials per episode will at least help the app capitalise on advertiser demand for video ads online.

Research firm eMarketer projects that ad spending on digital video will grow nearly 30 per cent to US$27.82 billion in 2018. Snapchat is projected to have about one per cent of that pie with US$397 million in ad revenue this year, up 17 per cent from 2017, according to eMarketer.

The app is best known for on-screen filters and short pieces of sponsored content, not as a media channel that carries programming.

Creating original TV programmes is an expensive way to change that perception. Snap will pay US$35,000 to US$50,000 for a five-minute episode for its scripted series. While those budgets are not big by traditional TV standards, they are not cheap for short-form web content.

Snap is entering a crowded field. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are also chasing the growing mobile audience with short-form content, and they will soon be joined by Hollywood veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has raised US$1 billion for his NewTV venture.

Katzenberg plans on getting big-name talent to make 10- to 15-minute original programmes designed for mobile users. (The 18-to-34 age group already consumes more media from mobile phones than television, according to Nielsen.)

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“There is an intense amount of competition for attention among these platforms, most of which are serving a similar audience, demographically speaking,” said Paul Verna, principal analyst for eMarketer.

“If Snap can create a show that their users feel they have to watch, having exclusivity over that property could allow them to retain and attract users. It’s a tall order because people don’t choose messaging platforms on the basis of their content.”

There is an intense amount of competition for attention among these platforms, most of which are serving a similar audience
Paul Verna, principal analyst for eMarketer

Sean Mills, senior director of programming content for Snap, said Snapchat can establish a beachhead because it already carries short-form programmes through its deals with other media outlets such as NBC, ESPN and Discovery. He is not daunted by the upcoming deep-pocketed venture from Katzenberg.

“He’s talking about it,” Mills said. “We’ve been doing it.”

Even with Snap’s recent troubles, the Snapchat app reaches 100 million users in the US and Canada every month. The average user spends 30 minutes on the app and checks it 20 times a day.

Serialised short-form scripted series and reality series designed for young viewers is a logical next step, said Mills, as Snapchat is the leading app for teenagers.

Three shows launched last week include Class of Lies – written by Williams – about a pair of college roommates who have a true-crime podcast and solve cold cases.

Also premiering is Co-Ed, the Duplass brothers-produced series that explores sex and romance in the lives of college freshmen.

Later this month, Snapchat will launch The Dead Girls Detective Agency, based on the young adult novel about a young woman in purgatory who tries to solve her murder.

Both “Co-Ed” and “The Dead Girls Detective Agency” are produced by the studio Indigo – Snap’s joint venture with NBCUniversal to create programmes exclusively for mobile platforms.

Two Snap originals will also come from reality show maker Bunim/Murray Productions. Endless Summer, which follows the lives of social media personalities Summer McKeen and Dylan Jordan living on Laguna Beach, California, is part of the initial launch. The company is also filming Growing Up Is a Drag, which features teenagers pursuing careers as drag performers and will premiere in the next few months.

Along with their brief length, the shows will have the look and feel of other Snapchat content. They are shot for a vertical phone screen and make heavy use of graphics, split screens and quick cuts. Viewers will also be able to use Snapchat’s augmented reality tools, such as a lens that allows them to interact with objects and characters on the programmes.

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“A 17-year-old who is watching the show in South Dakota can now step onto Laguna Beach and meet the characters on Endless Summer where they live,” Mills said.