Television studios are airport-hangar-size buildings with green rooms, overflow trailers, and people with massive salaries bustling around. I'm sitting instead in a cramped office on Wilshire Boulevard, a mile from Beverly Hills, which has been converted into a makeshift studio for the Internet-based TV talk show The Young Turks. In the control room, three staffers in T-shirts and a perky producer, Ana Kasparian, 23, man eight computer screens and clutch boxes of various Willy Wonka candies. A wall-size window separates them from a modest newscast-esque set.
Just before 4 p.m., host Cenk Uygur, 39, arrives — "early," he says, so we could talk — not at all fazed that his three-hour show is streaming live in 10 minutes. I've seen the show; his musings are thoughtful, insightful gems in a sea of digitized diatribes. I look around for a teleprompter. There isn't one. No writers either. Uygur watches the day's video clips for the first time during commercial breaks, seconds before he discusses them on-air.
Uygur doesn't look like a rebel, but there is something revolutionary going on here. Roughly 450,000 people watch The Young Turks on YouTube alone; thousands more in the precious 18-to-35 demo listen on Sirius Satellite Radio and through the TYT Web site, making it competitive with, say, MSNBC's Morning Joe (382,000 viewers a day in September), or CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight (616,000). And that, says Uygur, is only the beginning of a campaign "to take down television."
"When I watch TV, I see robots," he says. "We're not robots; we're people." On a show touching on health-care reform and Senator Max Baucus, Uygur proclaimed, "The mainstream media and the politicians who do these tricks and the media who cover for them — guess what? You're fucked. We're coming for you. We're coming to your house."
Uygur is no Jim Cramer or Keith Olbermann. There are no props. He doesn't pace or throw papers. On air, he sits at a desk in a news-anchor manner, without the necktie. His style is conversational. Even from the voyeuristic distance of YouTube, he seems to be having an intimate chat with his viewers. For two hours, he comments on what interests him about each sound bite and piece of video, and talks with guests who span the spectrum from Mel Brooks to Mary Matalin. A self-described moderate progressive, he sometimes disagrees with the likes of Michael Moore. For the third hour, cohost and producer Kasparian does softer news.
The Turks' goal has always been to make a television show for the Web and build on that success. "In '97, I knew television and the Internet would merge," Uygur says. "Didn't realize radio would too." TYT was Sirius's first original programming, an arrangement that, by 2006, provided this ragtag crew with an operating budget of $250,000 a year. According to Uygur, the network wouldn't allow them to produce a YouTube video program, so they raised their own funds (mostly friends and family) and worked out a syndication deal with Sirius. The gamble paid off; within a year, revenue reached the $250,000 mark. Today, TYT takes in more than $20,000 a month from YouTube's ad sharing, plus a similar sum from 2,100 subscriptions and ads from its own Web site. Revenue has doubled in the past 18 months.
With operating costs of $35,000 a month, covering five full-time employees and rent, TYT is a lean — and modestly profitable — talking machine. There's no makeup person. No wardrobe budget. No craft services. No catered lunches. No grips. No unions. And no 401(k)s. "Yeah, I'm on my wife's health care," admits Uygur.
To create a single hour of cable news, "you're probably looking at a ballpark of $200,000 to $300,000," says Pixel Pictures executive producer Karen Daniel. Compare that to TYT's tidy budget and television looks like a dinosaur blissfully dismissing mammals, or newspapers scoffing at blogs circa 2002.
TYT does absolutely no advertising. Rabid fans, known as the Young Turks' Nation, are the show's most devoted publicists. "Our marketing is purely word of mouth and people linking to our videos and blogs on the Web," says Uygur. Meaning TYT has found a way to crowdsource everything, from fact checking to $10-a-month Web subscriptions to keep the lights on. "If I screw up and say something wrong, I instantly get 100 messages," says Uygur.
What's next for TYT? "Launch a network," says Uygur. "We're crazy cheap." He notes they already have the studio and the equipment to produce another show. It would just take a couple more crew members and a new producer. The model is proven. YouTube is equipped. The TYT brand is ready to expand. Uygur hopes to launch at least one new show in the next three months.
But what if MSNBC, where Uygur had talks last spring about its 10 p.m. slot, comes calling? What if a real television network wants to scoop up TYT? "It would have to coexist with what we have," Uygur says. Cable news is welcome to syndicate its content, but TYT won't shut down the YouTube channel for the old Goliath of cable news. Instead, Uygur says, "we're going to pick their pockets."