Snapchat thinks being more like TV will save it

Snapchat thinks being more like TV will save it
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Snapchat is still trying to make mobile TV happen.

The smartphone app, which began releasing five-minute reality, news, and lifestyle shows last year, launched its first slate of scripted original series today (Oct. 10). It’s rolling out about half a dozen shows this month that were made by TV creators specifically for Snapchat, and another six are slated to follow. They include a docuseries about teenage drag queens from the producers of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a drama about a true-crime podcast that turns all-too real, a series of horror shorts, and a comedy about college life, among others.

Unlike regular TV, Snapchat originals are all shown vertically, the way people normally hold their phones. Each season is about 4-12 episodes long, with episodes dropping daily—in an attempt to keep Snapchat users returning to the app each day. They use quick cuts, split screens, and motion graphics to tell the story, and (hopefully) hook viewers, in five minutes. Similar to traditional TV, the shows include commercial breaks you can’t skip, which are each about six seconds long.

Snapchat is betting that being at the forefront of mobile TV with serialized shows will bring more people to the app, and keep them coming back regularly. Since going public under its parent company Snap in 2017, Snapchat has struggled to grow its user base. It had 188 million daily active users (pdf) at the end of the second quarter of 2018, just an 8% increase from the same period a year earlier. It’s been hurt by a poorly received redesign, and competitors like Facebook and Instagram that have copied some of its trademark features like Stories.

An analyst report from MoffettNathanson said the company was running out of cash and may need to raise new funding next year, which sent Snap shares down to a new low of $6.74 at yesterday’s close. It went public at $17 a share in March of last year.

Snapchat isn’t the only company reimagining TV for smartphones. Instagram launched an app for vertical, hour-long videos called IGTV this year. Media magnate Jeffrey Katzenberg is developing a new platform that wants to bring HBO-quality series to smartphones. A startup called Dreams is reformatting traditional TV programming to work on mobile. And, even Netflix, where people already watch TV on their smartphones regularly, is experimenting with vertical formats.

The production quality of Snapchat’s new originals is a step above the unscripted, news, and lifestyle programs Snapchat started rolling out a year ago. Still, they’re not of the same caliber as Netflix’s Stranger Things or HBO’s Game of Thrones. They’re more in line with a truncated version of what you’d find on a cable channel like Freeform or E!.

To help its shows stick, Snapchat is introducing pages for its originals series that will make them easier to find. It’s also promoting the series with features like its augmented-reality lenses, which will allow people to interact with scenes from the shows.