Deep-Web Spelunker Vocativ Is Jumping Headfirst Into Television

Founded in 2013, Company Relies on TV Deals and Branded Content for Revenue

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A scene from 'Dark Net,' Vocativ's new Showtime series arriving this week.
A scene from 'Dark Net,' Vocativ's new Showtime series arriving this week. Credit: Showtime

Vocativ's top executives are excited about the debut of its eight-episode series on Showtime, "Dark Net," this Thursday at 11 p.m. ET. But the digital media company already has more irons in the fire.

"By the time they're going to ask, 'What is the show?' they're going to ask, 'What is the next show?" Vocativ founder Mati Kochavi said of his audience.

Mr. Kochavi, an Israeli entrepreneur and investor, told Ad Age in an interview Tuesday that his company has booked two more deals for TV shows. (Vocativ COO Danna Rabin said the deals are "yet to be announced, but are closed.")

"We are showing some really cool stuff to some really big names who are really excited about what we are showing them," Mr. Kochavi said, declining to share additional details about the new shows.

The company is also aiming for the silver screen. "We are also working on some really powerful, interesting concepts for a feature movie, which also is based about the things which are in the deep web," Mr. Kochavi said at a Wednesday evening screening of "Dark Net." He told the crowd that William Morris Endeavor co-CEO Ari Emanuel is "checking about it," and that "he thinks that it's really going to be something that's going to be really powerful."

Vocativ was formed in 2013, describing itself as a "a groundbreaking news organization for people in their 20s and 30s" that relies on "proprietary technology, advanced methodology and fearless journalism."

That proprietary technology is now called Verne, and it's said to scour the "deep web" for story ideas -- though there have been questions about how well it actually works as a story-generator.

Vocativ's special-sauce technology was a key factor in its first TV deal, with MSNBC, in 2014. That deal concluded "a couple of months ago," Mr. Kochavi said, after 150 TV segments. A September 2014 segment on the since-shuttered "Ronan Farrow Daily" show, for example, focused on homophobia in Kyrgyzstan. Mikey Kay, a former Vocativ foreign correspondent, was the on-air talent.

The technology is also at the center of "Dark Net." Each episode will showcase three stories focused on a specific topic, such as bio-hacking, cyber-kidnapping and digital warfare.

Mr. Kochavi said during the screening that Showtime Networks President David Nevins originally liked Vocativ's concept for the show but said that he didn't believe in the technology. Vocativ, Mr. Kochavi said, flew in a team of technologists to convincingly demonstrate its capabilities.

While the TV deals are "profitable and nicely profitable" for Vocativ, Mr. Kochavi said most of the company's revenue -- "tens of millions" of dollars -- comes from deals to produce branded content that lives elsewhere. "Our technology is really top-notch for branded content," he said.

He declined, however, to name any marketers that had used the company's services.

Vocativ's branded content team reports to Ms. Rabin. By expanding the company's editorial reach into lifestyle topics like fashion and entertainment, Vocativ is broadening its appeal to advertisers, the executives said.

The company is also working on a project the executives declined to describe but that Mr. Kochavi said could revolutionize the way people consume content. In addition to Vocativ staffers, "close to 100 people" from Mr. Kochavi's other company, AGT Group, are working on the project. He said that Vocativ's "media partners" are paying to test out the product, or service, or whatever it is.

"It's going to be really different," Mr. Kochavi said. "It's going to be like a new genre."

Vivian Schiller, the former NBC News and NPR executive who now chairs Vocativ's executive committee, pitched TV as a "great platform" for the company and a key differentiator when compared to other digital media companies -- like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post -- that have expressed some interest in the medium but haven't yet made the jump.

"It's still so powerful," Ms. Schiller said.

"A lot of people talk about it," she added. "But we're maybe talking about it less and doing it more."

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