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Rivals watching nervously as Facebook unveils new video feature

This image provided by Facebook shows a screenshot demonstrating Facebook’s new Watch feature, which is dedicated to live and recorded video. The idea is to have fans commenting and interacting with the videos. The new Watch section is a potential threat to Twitter, YouTube, Netflix and other services for watching video. (Facebook via AP)
LONDON: Is the world of online video creation and consumption about to be shaken up in the Gulf? If Facebook has anything to do with it, then yes.
The social networking giant has revamped its video offering, creating a new hub for digital content called Watch, as it seeks to encourage users to spend even more time within its walled garden.
So far, Watch has been rolled out to a test audience in the US, providing users with a dedicated place to discover videos and acting as a platform for creators and publishers. Importantly, content is being personalized to help users discover shows organized around what their friends and communities are viewing.
Facebook hopes Watch will subsequently be made available internationally, although it is not clear when, with the company stating only that it is currently gathering feedback from people and publishers involved in the initial trial. No date is set for a Middle East launch.
What is clear is that Watch is an attempt by Facebook to dabble in original digital content, an avenue already heavily prioritized by YouTube. Even Snapchat, which opened an office in Dubai earlier this year, has delved into local content in Arabic via Discover, which it launched in May.
The implications in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and particularly in Saudi Arabia, where online video is consumed at global leading levels, could be significant.
According to figures from Google, Saudi Arabia has the highest YouTube watch-time per capita globally, while the Kingdom is responsible for a quarter of all video uploads in the Arab world. The amount of time Saudis spend watching YouTube on mobile devices is also growing at an annual rate of 65 percent, while more than 20 Saudi-based channels have over 1 million subscribers.
It is this strong demand for video that Facebook will no doubt be wishing to tap into.
“The edge Watch may have over other video platforms is the targeted and specific content dissemination that others lack,” said Rabah Assaf, digital media director at media agency Carat Saudi Arabia. “Facebook’s social canvas, and the way it serves relevant content based on what users’ friends have liked or otherwise interacted with, increases the chances of reaching viewers who a) might not actually be looking for video content when scrolling through their newsfeed and b) who are more likely to engage with it in a familiar and comfortable setting.
“This has the potential to be game changing in the Saudi market. The big question remains on how exactly Watch will be monetized and how users will respond to ad breaks appearing mid-stream in their daily digital viewing habits.”
Should Facebook’s rivals be concerned? Yes, said Claire Fletcher, associate social media director at J3 MENA, a global agency dedicated to Johnson & Johnson. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
“YouTube and Google video content is very much focused around search and channels you are interested in,” said Fletcher. “Facebook holds very good cards, as it is personalizing the content that is found based on your engagement data.
“The future is in personalization. I don’t want to find or search for something. Socially I want them to know and deliver this content to me, and Facebook has now allowed this to happen not only in short condensed content pieces but in the world of longer immersive video content.”
However, Assaf believes it is more likely that Watch will be viewed as a threat to traditional broadcasters if its plan to become a destination for TV shows comes to fruition.
“The plans it has in the pipeline convey a clear message that Facebook will no longer compete on a sole social networking level,” said Assaf. “Instead, it plans to be the micro-life within our lives and Watch is certainly part of this strategy. Facebook had undoubtedly long predicted the eventual skew toward online video and the launch timing of this offering is seamless.”
Waseem Afzal, executive director of integrated solutions at media communications agency OMD, added: “Watch’s success in the Saudi market will squarely depend on the type of content partnerships. This includes the type of genre they want to focus on, the profile of creators they want to work with and if it will be short- or long-form. If they find the right balance, they will certainly get traction from both consumers and advertisers.”