Three miles south of CNN’s Manhattan headquarters, in an office marked not with the broadcast company's familiar three-letter logo, but a red rocket ship, about 30 new employees have spent the last several weeks stealthily preparing to launch the broadcast network’s answer to publications like Vice and Buzzfeed: Great Big Story.
GBS is an independent LLC fully funded by CNN, and it aims to create video that is appealing to millenials (more specifically, "urban-located, globally curious 25- to 35-year-olds"), shareable on social networks, and appropriate for native advertising—all objectives that CNN, with its strict focus on news, is somewhat awkwardly suited to pursue.
CNN relies on cable subscriber fees for the bulk of its revenue, but as online viewing options put pressure on the cable bundle and global digital ad revenues look poised to surpass U.S. television advertising by 2017, those fees are at risk of shrinking. Meanwhile, a news story that goes live at 8 a.m. might be stale by 11 a.m., leaving only a narrow opportunity to package and monetize it online and across social networks.
In April 2014, CNN launched its digital studios, which produces bite-sized shows designed for social media and evergreen content that could be repackaged and reused. Over the next year, CNN's video views jumped 48%, but the type of story that CNN's audience is accustomed to, however, isn't necessarily the type of story that does well in in the social sphere.
After Narendra Modi was appointed as India’s prime minister, for instance, CNN’s digital team made a video that swayed from CNN’s usual straightforward voice. Titled, "Is THIS the most interesting man in the world?" it pointed to Modi’s poetry collections, three-hour-a-night sleep habits, and large number of female fans in India. "It did nothing," remembers Chris Berend, CNN’s vice president for video development and the head of its digital studios. "Because our audience comes to us for the news." When the team put the same video on Facebook, he says it racked up 2.5 million views within 24 hours.
And while Buzzfeed and Vice have both built large businesses on helping brands integrate their messages into videos, CNN’s focus on news also limits its ability to maximize this kind of advertising. After CNN launched a branded content studio called Courageous in June, native advertising the studio produced for CNN was always marked as sponsored content and often lived in a separate "branded zone" on the website. On Great Big Story, native advertising won't be labeled any differently than strictly editorial content (Update: To clarify, though branded content will be positioned the same as editorial content, each individual video will be labeled as sponsored, sometimes "creatively").
Berend and Andrew Morse, the executive vice president of editorial for CNN U.S. and GM of CNN Digital Worldwide, eventually decided they could compete more effectively for millennial-focused advertising dollars if their content wasn't tied to the CNN brand. "There’s a temptation to bend yourself into a pretzel and try to do that," Morse says. "CNN oughta be CNN."
At launch, which is scheduled for October 20, GBS will release Android and iOS apps, and content in Facebook’s "suggested videos" feature. In November, it will launch on YouTube, and at the beginning of 2016, it will be available on Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, and Kindle Fire.
Courtney Coupe, who most recently headed up digital video development and production at Bloomberg, is GBS’s executive producer. Matthew Drake (TIME, NowThis) is in charge of audience and content development, and David Spiegel (Buzzfeed) heads up sales.
GBS is positioning itself as not only different than CNN, but also in opposition to other popular web video studios. It plans to launch an advertising campaign with the tagline, "Feed your feed." One internal sales video positions the content like this: "What if there were more to your social feed than empty clickbait and cat videos? What if there were real stories, great big ones? About new frontiers, the human condition, and our planet, and its tastes and flavors? Stories so curious and compelling, so jaw-droppingly awesome, that at the end of the day you feel completely full?"
Among GBS’s first feature videos are a history of Chef Boyardee, told in a "Wes Anderson-inspired" style; an interview with the man who originally voiced the Kool-Aid guy; and a feature about how the shape of pupils is different in predators than in prey.
Morse and Berend say they are filling a white space in online video between Vice and Buzzfeed. "One of those is very shouty. The other is cotton candy," Berend says. "We didn’t see anybody occupying that smart space in the middle that was fundamentally optimistic about the world, and it wasn’t just screaming that everything was bad."
That smart space is arguably not totally empty. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both do high-end, journalistic feature web video and have branded content studios. So do Hearst and Conde Nast (the latter even has editors work directly with brands on content). A more significant space that GBS has the potential to fill is in CNN’s advertising offerings. Courageous, the company's branded content studio, now lives inside of GBS. Rather than using preroll or banner ads, GBS advertising will be entirely integrated into its content—and the line between editorial and advertorial video will become blurrier than ever.