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Snapchat, Apple, WhatsApp and more are at the forefront of original, mobile-focused TV

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The battle for mobile streaming domination continues

Game of Thrones 603 - Tyrion Helen Sloan/HBO

With more people watching shows on their phones, companies other than Netflix are looking to get in on the sizable audience. Apple and Snapchat are two of the biggest companies, but they’re not the only ones. WhatsApp just launched its first scripted series and people have been making shorts on Instagram for years. A new deal between Time Warner and Snapchat, however, for $100 million could be raising the stakes a little more, as networks like HBO and studios like Warner Bros. get in on the action.

Time Warner and Snapchat made the announcement Monday at Cannes Lions, a festival in France dedicated to media and advertising. Time Warner said it would primarily use the deal as a way to promote its films and television series. Although Time Warner never specifically said which shows and films would receive supporting treatment from Snapchat-exclusive content, the company did add that it was a way to draw in more attention for some of its networks’ biggest series and movies, according to Bloomberg.

More specifically, it’s a way to get people watching movies like Justice League and shows like Game of Thrones. But don’t expect to get Game of Thrones episodes on Snapchat; it’s just not something that will serve the app’s users.

Instead, think of each Snapchat show as advertorial content for the networks and studios’ biggest series, where Time Warner is investing millions of dollars. Game of Thrones is already one of the biggest shows on television, critically and commercially; the Snapchat vignettes could help HBO sell subscriptions. The DC Cinematic Universe also doesn’t need much promotion, but Time Warner is explicitly using a platform geared toward an audience that is actually spending more money at the theater. Getting an audience invested in a movie before it comes out should drive box office performance further.

Time Warner is one of the biggest companies to team with Snapchat for the project, but it’s not the only one. ABC announced last year that it would make original series for Snapchat, too, with a focus on some of its biggest shows, like The Bachelor. NBC created a Snapchat-exclusive series that runs alongside The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon as a way to reach an audience who might not be watching Fallon otherwise.

With more than 161 million daily users — more than Twitter, but less than Instagram and Facebook — and a focus on video, Snapchat makes the most sense for networks and studios interested in experimenting with shorter, exclusive, scripted series. Snapchat adopted this strategy a while ago. Sean Mills, head of original content at Snapchat, told Variety that the mobile space exists in a weird moment right now: it’s prime for short series, but, according to him, no one wants to try it.

“Most of what you see there today is largely repurposed from TV, but we’re at the very beginning of the creative community coming in with a unique approach,” Mills said. “We’re trying to partner with people to drive that conversation.”

Snapchat is one of the biggest names trying to partner with networks and studios to deliver original content to its user base, but another well known company is also exploring new opportunities in the scripted series sphere: Apple.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, and Apple CFO Luca Maestri, haven’t been shy about talking about plans the company has for streaming series. Neither have Jimmy Iovine, a partner working on Apple Music, or Eddy Cue, senior vice president of internet software and services. The company has launched its first original series, Planet of the Apps, which users can get with their Apple Music subscription. It also has a new, scripted drama in the works from Dr. Dre, another partner on Apple Music, an exclusive version of James Corden’s popular Carpool Karaoke, and it doesn’t have plans to stop there.

In an interview with Recode (a Vox media publication), Cue said Apple wanted to do something unique and interesting with Apple Music — not just copy what other streaming services have done.

We're trying to do things that are unique and cultural. ... We think we have a real opportunity in the TV space to do that with Apple Music and shows, and the things we're trying to do aren't being done by anybody else. ... So yes, to the extent if we wanted to do what everybody else is doing, then you’re right, we might be better off buying somebody or doing that.

But that’s not what we're trying to do. We are trying to do something that’s unique, takes advantage of our platforms and that really brings culture to it. ... Right now, we think we can do that with partners like Ben [Silverman], and we don’t see that anywhere else.

But Apple is Apple, and the company is looking to compete with the biggest names in streaming. It’s why the company recently poached Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, heads of Sony Pictures Television. Erlicht and Van Amburg, best known for flagship series like AMC’s Breaking Bad and FX’s Rescue Me, have the experience and knowledge to lead the company’s new scripted series division. The goal, as far as Apple has said, is not just to compete with the biggest companies dominating mobile streaming, which right now is Netflix, but to bring more attention to Apple Music.

Cook has repeatedly said that one of Apple’s fastest growing departments is its services, which includes Apple Music and the App Store. Exclusive series are a way to sell subscriptions, much like how Game of Thrones or Veep-related content on Snapchat is a way for Time Warner to sell subscriptions. It’s a formula that’s been proven to work, as seen by Netflix. Exclusive series on Netflix sells subscriptions and, with more than 100 million subscribers worldwide, it’s the perfect example of what can happen with critically acclaimed series.

It’s why Netflix promised to double the amount of original content coming to the platform this year. Netflix’s head of content, Ted Sarandos, told journalists last year that the company wanted at least 1,000 hours of original series it could give to subscribers. It’s an easy way to get people to subscribe — Netflix is the only place to get Netflix shows — and because of that exclusivity, people can only go to one place to watch. This is the formula that Apple and Time Warner seek to replicate using their streaming services and partnerships with Snapchat.

Whereas Apple is selling the idea of software and subscriptions on top of hardware, Snapchat and platforms like WhatsApp are hoping users buy into watching shows on an app they already use daily and drive up their number of daily users. Uk’shona Kwelanga, for example, is the first scripted drama series made exclusively for WhatsApp. The series takes place entirely in the app and uses a combination of text, voice notes, photos and video to tell a story. Although it’s created in South Africa and with a South African audience in mind, anyone around the world can watch it. All they have to do is text their name to a designated number on WhatsApp. Episodes will then be delivered straight to their phone every day. The only way to watch the show is to use WhatsApp, meaning those who aren’t on it will need to create an account. To stay up to date with the series, people will have to use the app daily, driving up numbers for the company to sell to investors.

The goal for companies like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Apple and the networks they partner is less getting an audience to buy into a series and more about pushing them to subscribe to their platforms. Original content and, more importantly, good original content is one of the best ways to do just that. The promise of exclusivity and a show worth spending five minutes a day watching keeps the daily user count up and rewards these companies with their own slice of prestige. These companies will use mobile technology, relying on devices that people have with them 24/7, to deliver new series directly into their hands and increase time spent inside the app.

Mobile is the new streaming battleground. It’s now a race to see who can compete with Netflix. Exclusive deals for Snapchat through Time Warner, new series on WhatsApp and millions of dollars in investment from Apple are just more steps in that direction.

The question is, of course, will this work? Will people buy into five-minute, short series on a platform they regularly use to take selfies, listen to music or send texts? People are watching more shows on mobile, yes, but is that because of convenience or desire? There’s no reason to believe it won’t; even if it’s not appointment viewing, it is destination viewing. If you’re in the app already and this has a top spot on the homepage, which it will, then you may just click on it out of curiosity.

With Snapchat, Apple, WhatsApp and more gearing up to launch their series within the year or soon after, it’s only a matter of time before we know for sure. The future of TV could be shorter and on mobile, but only time will tell.