Digital Media Companies Continue Slow March Toward TV
It's no longer a question of "if," it's a question of "when." Digital publishers like Vox Media, BuzzFeed, Thrillist Media Group, and Mashable are all moving closer to being on TV, even though it's taking a little longer than some media-watchers might have predicted.
On Friday, "daily digital magazine" Ozy announced new details about a 16-part show, called "The Contenders - 16 for '16," that will air on PBS starting in September.
The show, hosted by Ozy CEO Carlos Watson, focuses on notable political candidates throughout history, and is timed with the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Watson, in a recent interview with Ad Age, said the company he launched in 2013 inked a deal with talent agency CAA and has three shows in development.
For Ozy, "The Contenders - 16 for '16" presents a tremendous opportunity to educate a large TV audience about the company that produced it.
These days, publishers are more willing to talk openly and confidently about working on TV projects, especially now that Vice has paced the field and launched its own channel in Viceland. At a certain point, companies risk looking slow-footed or old-fashioned by ignoring the medium, when some of the darlings of the digital media industry are digging in their heels and getting a lot of press for doing so.
For digital publishers, TV is seen as a great opportunity to reach a huge new audience and potentially make a lot of money from advertising and licensing deals in the process, at a time when the industry is looking for new revenue streams.
"If you're a digital publisher, you have every big TV company calling you," Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer said in a wide-ranging interview with Ad Age in June. Thrillist, he said at the time, is "working with multiple production companies right now on a bunch of different TV concepts."
But, making TV is a time-intensive process, with far more steps and boxes to check off than producing digital-only videos.
"It's a lot of freaking work," said Chad Mumm, VP of Vox Entertainment, which is working on a show about prefabricated homes for the FYI network.
"My experience is that TV just generally has a longer cycle from idea to release, and digital is just a lot more nimble," said Eric Korsh, a veteran TV executive who heads up Mashable Studios. "It's not a negative thing. That's just the way it is until somebody changes it."
Publishers that have TV ambitions are generally taking it slow. Back in February, when asked whether female-focused digital media company Refinery29 is considering TV, co-CEO Justin Stefano told Ad Age, "We're thinking about it and doing research." These days, Refinery29 is talking to "several cable networks about everything from on-air programming to digital wrap-arounds to on-air to TV networks in OTT bundles," a spokeswoman said.
BuzzFeed has long been linked to TV. "We want to do TV, but we want to do it in a different way," CEO Jonah Peretti said in June 2015. The publisher, which will produce TV shows that "come more organically out of franchises that we're building," Mr. Peretti recently told The Hollywood Reporter, is working on a potential TV adaption of the web show "Mom vs. Chef," as part of the company's partnership with NBCUniversal, among other projects.
In March, at the South By Southwest Interactive news conference, Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore announced plans to create four short-form, original, digital video shows for Bravo. While the shows are not slated to air on TV, Mr. Cashmore suggested to Ad Age that the development deal "may result in ideas and shows and concepts to move up to Bravo."
"Real Housekids," based on the "The Real Housewives" franchise, is the first of the Bravo/Mashable shows, and went online Monday. The second show is "pretty far along" but has no debut date, while the third show will start shooting in about two weeks," Mr. Korsh said. Mashable has another, soon-to-be-announced development deal, but he couldn't reveal any additional details.
Vox Media is also moving closer to being on the small screen. In early May, it was announced that real estate brand Curbed will have a show on FYI, an A&E Networks channel.
Mr. Mumm said the production process for "Prefabulous" (working title) is "coming along great." Vox Media's production arm has settled on a host and a couple for the first episode of the show. The couple, Mr. Mumm said, "really does embody what makes Curbed so great."
The plan is for Vox Entertainment to produce one episode of the show, to decide whether any changes need to be made, and then to shoot the rest of the eight-episode series. While Vox wouldn't estimate when the show will actually appear on FYI, Mr. Mumm said the first episode will be shot later in the summer. "There are so many things that can impact an air date," he said.
Mr. Mumm contrasted Vox Entertainment's approach, to "[build] out a competency to be a TV programmer," with that of some other media brands, which have moved quickly to get a branded project of some sort on TV.
"We're not just sort of taking a one-off approach. ... It's a longterm game, it's a bigger investment," he said. "There certainly are short cuts, if you wanted to not control it, and you wanted to sort of outsource it to production companies. ... If we wanted to have a 'Curbed TV show', we could have had one years ago by partnering with the production company that produces HGTV shows ... "
Some publishers are already waist-deep in TV. Condé Nast Entertainment, the video production arm of the magazine publisher, has several concepts on air and in production. On Friday, "Last Chance U," a show about a group of college football players that was "inspired" by a GQ story and produced in part by CNÉ, debuted on Netflix. AMC has purchased a pilot for a show ("Magic City") that resulted from a GQ story about a strip club in Atlanta.
CNÉ will soon announce that a digital series from its stable has been purchased and will become a show on linear cable, a spokesman said.
Digital news startup Vocativ produced an eight-episode TV show about technology that aired earlier this year on Showtime. "Dark Net" has already been picked up for a second season. Vocativ founder Mati Kochavi told Ad Age in January that his company had booked two additional TV deals.
TV is an exciting medium for publishers, but it's not everyone, said David Grant, a former Fox TV executive who heads up PopSugar Studios, which is currently producing a four-week test of a show for Fox TV Studios.
"TV content and online video content are fundamentally different, and entities that are focused and good at online are not necessarily focused and good at the huge-hook/longform/series orientation of TV," he said in an email. "Publishers who think their brands automatically convert to TV shows are naive or creating a myth (though here, Vice is an exception)."