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Why ‘Red Table Talk’ is the key to Facebook Watch’s future

Facebook Watch seems to have found its lane with unscripted, talent-driven programming. But it’s a formula that could prove tricky to duplicate.

Why ‘Red Table Talk’ is the key to Facebook Watch’s future
[Photo: Sophy Holland/Facebook]

Back in January, reports began to surface that Facebook Watch would be scaling back its scripted original programming, which shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

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Just a year earlier, YouTube stared down a similar fate when it couldn’t generate a sustainable audience, paying or otherwise, for its original programming.

Facebook Watch hasn’t been hard-up for A-list talent (Elizabeth Olsen, Sorry for Your Loss; Jessica Biel, Limetown; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen America), but its programming slate hasn’t quite broken through.

Except for Red Table Talk.

Jada Pinkett Smith’s family-style talk show has become Facebook Watch’s cornerstone program. Currently in its third season, Red Table Talk was Facebook Watch’s No. 1 show by number of viewers in the U.S. last year. On average, each episode garners 14.7 million views, and its official group page generates around 200 posts and 15,000 comments per day.

The show has even inspired homespun versions with viewers creating their own local Red Table chapters.

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Red Table Talk exemplifies what Facebook Watch was aiming for: creating programming that could spark conversation and community (i.e., keep viewers on Facebook for as long as possible).

Facebook Watch announced earlier this year that Red Table Talk was renewed through 2022 and that a spin-off version with Gloria Estefan and her family is in the works.

“When you’re launching something, of course we cast a wider net,” says Mina Lefevre, head of development and programming at Facebook Watch. “But when we see success in an area like a Red Table Talk, we’ll absolutely start doubling down and doing more of that.”

Can Facebook Watch make lightning strike twice? More important, can Facebook Watch find long-term success beyond one franchise?

Making room at the table

Red Table Talk‘s formula is simple: Three women from different generations sit around a table and talk about a variety of personal and societal issues.

Conceivably, it’s a show any celebrity family could do—just maybe not with the same resonance as the Smith family, in particular Jada as the show’s anchor.

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Red Table Talk‘s executive producer Ellen Rakieten has spent nearly 30 years in TV production, most notably as an executive producer on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Over the years, she’s had numerous requests from people wanting to be the next Oprah. But, for Rakieten, it comes down to that ever-nebulous “it” factor, which she immediately spotted in Pinkett Smith when a mutual friend connected them.

“I cried during my first meeting with Jada because she said something so poignant,” Rakieten says. “I walked out of the meeting like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have not felt this way in years.'”

That meeting set in motion what would become Red Table Talk.

Despite being a veteran in the business, though, Rakieten still has a tough time figuring out exactly what makes a show—or more specifically, a host—break through and connect with an audience.

“Isn’t that the billion-dollar question? To me, it’s the same question when people say, ‘Why can’t I play basketball like Michael Jordan? Why can’t I paint like Picasso?'” Rakieten says. “My basic answer, which I don’t like, is they’re authentic, and they tell it like it is. All of that is true. But so do a lot of people. So what is that magic, secret, special, fairy-dust combination that just makes somebody a leader and that voice you trust and believe in? It’s their vulnerability. It’s their willingness to share their own lives. So we feel like we’re not on this journey by ourselves.”

[Jada Pinkett Smith. Photo: Sophy Holland/Facebook]
Red Table Talk may have a simple premise, but the essence of the show has become intrinsically linked to the Smith family. That vulnerability extends to filming in their actual home, frequently pulling in other family members, including Will, to join the conversation, and some episodes specifically centered on their own family dynamics.

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At this point, it’s hard to imagine Red Table Talk with anyone but the Smith family.

But Facebook Watch and Pinkett Smith’s production company, Westbrook, are betting there’s room at the table for the Estefans.

Make room for Gloria

Red Table Talk: The Estefans will be filmed in their hometown of Miami and features Gloria Estefan, her daughter Emily, and her niece Lili. Rakieten says Pinkett Smtih suggested the Estefans for a spin-off, and, in her mind, there’s a dynamic that will hopefully feel familiar to viewers but be distinct enough to offer something fresh.

“Gloria is this sage. Emily is questioning it all and pushing boundaries left and right. And Lili really comes from like an everywoman point of view,” Rakieten says. “The red table has really become a symbol, and you want people commanding the table who have lots to share—and they do.”

For Facebook’s Lefevre, Red Table Talk: The Estefans, which is currently delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will only work if they have the same openness as the Smiths.

“Having this idea of a multigenerational point of view is key to the red table,” Lefevre says. “But you still want to make sure they have what it takes, as in, they’re open to having these conversations and having this forum.”

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[Willow Smith. Photo: Sophy Holland/Facebook]

Engaging the community

Red Table Talk has created a blueprint for the kind of programming that works on Facebook Watch: an unscripted (i.e., cheaper to produce) topical show with an inherent focus on community. While the show has broad appeal, there’s a particular connection for black audiences—and soon enough, Latin audiences with the Estefans—in that issues such as mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse are filtered through a more relatable lens.

“Facebook is good at creating community discussion,” says streaming and VOD expert Dan Rayburn. “Now, the discussions may not be good, but the point is that’s what Facebook creates. People feel like they’re connected to a community or multiple communities on Facebook. This show is taking advantage of that in a good way.”

Pinkett Smith has mentioned the idea of taking Red Table Talk global, with potential franchises in China, India, and beyond, as well as possibly doing live tours once we can do mass events again.

But Facebook Watch can’t rely on a one-hit wonder with a bunch of remixes. The challenge now is how to capitalize on what it knows works but apply it to something outside of the Red Table Talk universe.

Leaving the table

Although there are still some scripted shows in the works, Lefevre says that Red Table Talk has helped in pushing the platform more in the direction of unscripted.

[Adrienne Banfield-Norris. Photo: Sophy Holland/Facebook]
“I’m not saying we have to have exactly the same format, but the idea of having an authentic place for people to have real conversation and connect around is still something we’ll look for, and that’s better served in unscripted,” Lefevre says.

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Facebook Watch already had unscripted programming, such as Steve on Watch (Steve Harvey’s former NBC talk show repurposed for Facebook Watch in 2020) and Returning the Favor with Mike Rowe (currently in its fourth season). But those shows came up at the same time as Red Table Talk.

What’s worth keeping an eye on in Facebook Watch’s post-Red Table Talk-success era is newer programming like The Biebers.

What Justin has in common with Jada—and what he doesn’t

To that end, Facebook Watch recently premiered The Biebers, a reality show starring Justin Bieber and his wife Hailey Baldwin Bieber. The 12-episode series is self-shot, as the couple takes viewers inside their home for a candid look at their relationship, tackling issues including Justin’s battle with depression, how they’re dealing with marriage, and so forth.

Like Red Table Talk, The Biebers is clearly teeing up talking points for the comments section.

But the show’s structure takes a different approach, leaning more into vlog-style filming (i.e., even lower production costs).

In a way, it’s the reality-show version of Red Table Talk.

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“Our priority is talent driven, community-building content,” Lefevre says. “Talk shows have really worked for us, where the format hasn’t really succeeded for others. It’s because inherently we’re a social media platform. This is where people bring the conversation to connect. The show is a catalyst where people can engage in a much deeper way on our platforms.”

Facebook Watch is settling into its lane of celebrity-driven, unscripted programming, with Red Table Talk at the wheel. Granted, not every show can be a talk show, so how Facebook Watch is applying the overarching principles that Red Table Talk proved could work will be interesting.

That said, as Rakieten mentioned, a celebrity-driven show’s ability to break through in a meaningful way has everything to do with what that celebrity is bringing to it.

Coming up with a premise is the easy part, but who’s at the helm makes all the difference.

“There were many talk shows that came and went during the 25 years of the Oprah era,” Rakieten says. “Part of it was the way the shows were produced. Some of them are really successful in other areas but weren’t able to translate it. For Red Table Talk, talent is the answer to why it’s so successful. Jada just has the gift.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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