Six Months in, CNN's Great Big Story Courts Next Wave of Advertisers

Jeff Zucker Pitches Marketers on a Clutter-Free BuzzFeed

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CNN's Worldwide President Jeff Zucker at the network's NewFronts presentation.
CNN's Worldwide President Jeff Zucker at the network's NewFronts presentation. Credit: Joe Ferrucci/Great Big Story

CNN on Thursday used its NewFronts presentation to put the spotlight on Great Big Story, its six-month-old video network designed to appeal to a global audience of young, glued-to-their-smartphones curiosity seekers.

Speaking to advertisers at the West Village beer hall-cum-event space Houston Hall, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker characterized Great Big Story as "the most exciting new investment I've ever made," before going on to note that the network will thrive on its own merits.

He said the presentation Thursday was "about something decidedly different and truly remarkable," the first company CNN has created in 35 years "that doesn't boast those three red letters the world knows so well."

Since debuting in October, Great Big Story has generated more than 40 million video views per month, while amassing 6.2 million fans via various social and owned media platforms, CNN said. The median age of the network, which has published north of 400 narrative videos, is 27 years.

"That's an incredible engagement story," Mr. Zucker said. "And we're just getting started." The veteran TV boss went on to say that Great Big Story in the next few months will expand into connected TVs and mobile streaming services such as Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Prime.

Among the new series GBS has in the works are "Hey, Willie!," a forum in which country music legend Willie Nelson dispenses his 83 years' worth of life advice to young fans, and an as-yet untitled travel doc showcase featuring The Decemberists' multi-instrumentalist (and one-time Stephen Colbert "antagonist") Chris Funk.

GBS is also partnering with linear TV networks outside CNN parent Turner. "That's Amazing," a one-hour, eight-episode series about the unpredictable nature of the elements, will debut on The Weather Channel this fall.

Of course, as virtual reality projects are all but mandatory in 2016, GBS will take the plunge in VR with "Take Me There," a travel and adventure series that will immerse viewers in such far-flung locales as Hawaii's vertiginous (and wholly off-limits) Haiku Stairs, a rickety assemblage of 3,922 metal steps that clings precariously to the spine of Honolulu's Ko'oalu mountain range. The stairs have been closed to the public for the better part of 30 years.

Also in the works is "Really Great Big Stories," a series of six short films developed in conjunction with CNN Films. The half-dozen shorts will bow across TV, digital and social platforms in November (presumably after the madness of the 2016 presidential election has run its course).

"CNN has owned this election cycle, and Great Big Story plans to own the zeitgeist after [the election] is over," Mr. Zucker said. "This is a story so great that even knee surgery couldn't stop me from being here to tell you about it." (A murderously competitive tennis player, Mr. Zucker made his rounds around the Houston Hall space with the help of a cane, a holdover from last month's operation.)

Now that Great Big Story has outlined what it's accomplished over the last six months and what the future holds, the next big step is to convince more advertisers to hop onboard. Hewlett Packard Enterprise and General Electric have kicked the tires on sponsored content, with the former having funded an eight-part series, "The Dreamers," that debuted in February.

The branded content is subtle, as the most blatant nods to the HP sponsorship initiative are limited to an understated font set beneath the title. For example, in a two-minute-and-eleven-second "Dreamers" piece on the role animal selfies play in the conservation of Costa Rica's rainforest, the sponsor text ("A Great Big Story by Hewlett Packard Enterprise") appears at the beginning of the video, and for all of two seconds.

In lieu of the moribund pre-roll format, Great Big Story is limited its sponsorship deals to branded content executions.

"While other publishers crank out hundreds of commoditized stories each day, we focus on a special few," Mr. Zucker said, noting that Great Big Story generally produces between three to five videos per day in an environment that is immune to the insidiousness of ad-blocker tech.

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