Elizabeth Murdoch's media company uses Snapchat and science to create hit shows

Key Points
  • Vertical Networks uses its Snapchat channel Brother to test out youth audience reaction to show concepts, then develops those ideas into social media series on Snapchat and Facebook.
  • Two of their shows are in development for TV, and they have book deals and apps in the works expected to be released within the next six months.
Elisabeth Murdoch attends a National Youth Theatre's fundraising dinner in London, 2012.
Dave M. Benett | Getty Images

Giving someone unfettered access to your mobile device so they can look through your messages, photos and apps is probably one of your worst nightmares.

And this summer, it's coming to a dating TV show near you — courtesy of Elizabeth Murdoch's Vertical Networks.

"Phone Swap" is a reality series where two people are set up on a blind date. At the end of the date comes a twist: they exchange phones. Each person is allowed to look through all the private information with no limitations. Armed with knowledge, both are then asked if they want to go on a second date.

The 3- to 4-minute episodes post twice a week on Snapchat Discover, attracting an average of 10 million viewers per episode. Thanks to its success, it will become the first series to move from Snapchat to TV. A 30-minute version of "Phone Swap" will air on select Fox stations in the next few months, and if successful, the network could order more episodes.

A projected 520 scripted original television shows are set to be released in 2018 according to an FX study – not to mention numerous unscripted shows like "Phone Swap." Viewers have more to watch than ever before, making the competition to have a hit series more intense especially among those trying to chase younger eyeballs.

But the 50-person team at Vertical Networks think they have an edge. By combining audience insights from Snapchat and TV production experience, the company has come up with a scientific method for creating new series. It's also relying on social media as its home base, perhaps showing a way traditional media companies — like the Murdoch family's 21st Century Fox — could evolve.

"My personal focus has always been about content and not platform," said Elizabeth Murdoch, who is the daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in an email. "Clearly, today's content needs to meet the needs of audiences who are increasingly watching on mobile devices and embracing new formats, so in that regard of course digital is important – but we are platform agnostic."

Meet Brother

Vertical Networks, which launched in 2015, averages 50 million monthly active viewers and 2.3 billion monthly views across its content including its 10 Snapchat and Facebook shows. Besides "Phone Swap," it's got another series called "I Have a Secret" in TV development. It also has book deals, podcasts, apps and other channel launches that are expected to come out within the next six months.

"We are media-agnostic, but everything we do starts with IP that has the capacity and scale to travel," Murdoch said.

It also runs Brother, a Snapchat daily publication that reaches more than 6.5 million unique viewers a day. Over 60 percent of the audience is under 25. Most importantly, it's a testing ground for Vertical Networks.

"In working closely with these platforms we are able to form a direct relationship (and two-way conversation) with these audiences and to test, refine and iterate the content we create for them," Murdoch said. "Pairing the scale of digital platforms with premium programming sensibilities creates disproportionately successful content – but it requires both push and pull, not simply serving audiences what you think they should want."

Brother has helped them avoid putting money into shows that won't resonate with their core audience. Vertical Networks began feeling out an idea called "Epic Quit," a show based around leaving your job in an over-the-top way like giving your notice with a marching band. I It also knew what types of youth-oriented shows had been successful in the past, and saw parallels between their idea and MTV's "Pimp My Ride."

To see if its audience liked the concept, Brother created 25 to 30 different snaps and themed-editions around work and quitting. But there was "no interest" in the topic, according to Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright. The audience simply didn't care about employment or frustrations about work.

"We tried several editions where we could test work as a subject matter with the context of [a Brother] edition, prominently or discretely," Wright said. "No matter how we used work as a subject matter, all the tests were negative."

A snap used to test "Epic Quit." Courtesy of Vertical Networks

The origins of "Phone Swap"

In the case of "Phone Swap," Vertical Networks saw how today's phones held intimate secrets. This time, it looked to MTV's "Room Raiders" as inspiration.

"There were the observations that the modern equivalent of the diary is the phone," Wright said. "The hypothesis was what has changed culturally in the last five years that suddenly changes what you loved about the show?"

On average, Vertical Networks comes up with about 20 different "concepts" that it tests on Brother for each show idea. For phones and dating, some days it posted a few snaps about the subject. Other times it tried "single-concept" editions, which would be a series of 16 to 20 snaps about the same subject. Vertical Networks could see which snaps performed well, and started formulating the show structure based on those.

One of the snaps used to test out "Phone Swap." Courtesy of Vertical Networks

Vertical Networks shot four different versions of "Phone Swap" as a pilot. One version involved a person deciding which of two people they wanted to date with based on their phone. In another iteration, both daters were told they were going to swap phones. The third version involved the daters knowing that they would only go on a date if they were willing to give up their phone.

After testing with a real audience, Vertical Networks discovered if viewers didn't see a sense of panic within the first 20 seconds they weren't hooked. That's why it decided on the fourth and final version, where the daters didn't know about the phone exchange beforehand.

"I see genuine jeopardy," Wright said. "That's what makes the show magic. Suddenly, there's this reveal. As a viewer, I'm feeling what they're feeling."

To further ensure chemistry, Vertical Networks interviews the daters to figure out their likes and dislikes in a significant other. One said she was self-conscious about her freckles that she covered them up with makeup, so they paired her up with another person who drew on freckles because she loved the look so much.

"This gets at the heart of what we are," Wright said. "How do you do this in a way that has some utility, something substantive? We love leaving them with utility. We're looking for the heart between the 1s and 0s."