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Vox’s new Netflix show is just the start of its video ambitions

As Vox.com launches its new Netflix show, Explained, we see the industry trying to figure out a sustainable model for video.

Vox’s new Netflix show is just the start of its video ambitions
[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

In 2015, Claire Gordon was segment producer for the popular HBO comedy show Last Week Tonight. She was helping prepare an upcoming episode that talked about abortion. In her research, she came across a video made by Vox.com, which asked people in Times Square whether they were pro-choice, pro-life, both, or neither. The responses were surprisingly nuanced; when offered a gradient of choices and less divisive wording, Americans were able to understand and show how complicated the issue was. Gordon wanted to use this footage, but didn’t want the ambient staccatoed music we have come to expect with online videos–ditto the overlaid Vox explainer-y graphics. So she emailed Joe Posner, the producer of this video, who graciously handed over all of the raw footage.

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“This was one of the most exciting emails I got in 2015,” Posner tells me. For Gordon, she loved the directness of the video–“it just captured how the way we talk about this debate is wrong.” And so Gordon sifted through the video and used it for a segment; Posner, too, was amped to have his snippets of his three-minute online video featured on national television. To him it proved that a show like Last Week Tonight had something in common with his team at Vox; “there’s a shared ethos that people are curious about the world.”

Now Posner is being given an even greater opportunity to distribute his video work. Vox.com is about to launch its first television show through a partnership it inked last year with Netflix. This is just one of a few shows Vox Media has inked with Netflix, as it begins to expand its video horizons beyond YouTube and Facebook. And, through a twist of fate, Gordon–who randomly emailed Posner about using footage for the HBO show she was producing some three years ago–has joined the crew as showrunner and EP. She’s part of a 23-person team that, since January, birthed Vox’s Explainer show from YouTube ephemera to polished TV show.

BTS, episode four [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

The road to Netflix

Since its inception in 2014, Vox has built up a reputation for a very specific voice. It could best be described as that guy or girl in class whose tongue seems too big for their mouth, but absolutely knows everything about a single topic. The idea of explaining the news has become both a strategy for the news site as well as a punchline for many media professionals who balked at the rise of this didactic journalism. Whatever their opinions from the get-go, the practice has stuck and become a dominant storytelling method.

Video has been part Vox’s method since the beginning. Indeed, it launched with a video produced by Joe about Obamacare’s individual mandate. According to the site’s co-founder, Ezra Klein, this non-text format was always part of the equation. “We knew we wanted to do great video,” he tells me. Back then he saw the trend other media companies were following when it came to news video–“bootleg cable news” he calls it. “We made a decision early on that we would not do that.”

Instead, the idea was to create videos that didn’t necessarily follow a formula but piqued people’s curiosities. “Pretty early on,” says Klein, “we had an approach that–compared to a lot of folks in the space–was both different and much more focused on letting video makers take their creativity and run with it.”

“No one told us what to do,” says Joss Fong, who, like Posner, has been leading the video program since the very beginning. “We don’t tell our producers what to do.” In the early days (that is, three-ish years ago), video was still relatively new terrain. “There was not a lot out there–there was BuzzFeed and Vice,” says Fong. She and Posner wanted to create a program that was distinctive from the rest. “We were really experimental,” says Fong.

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The videos that seemed to work best were the ones created with a certain enthusiasm. Fong remembers an early one that tried to debunk the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” which really resonated with viewers. It was something she was passionate about–namely that this beloved television event is peddling some inaccurate information. Says Fong, this video led to the team figuring out its style–one where “you have to think about what you’re showing people . . . you can’t rely on some sort of decoration.”

These videos coalesced into visual essays about myriad topics. Posner and Fong gave their small team of producers the keys to seek out topics they were most interested in. Of course, they were hampered by budget and the constraints of online video. But the team was focused on keeping people interested.

“With videos, it’s a very high bar to get people to press play,” says Posner. With Facebook, it may be relatively easy thanks to auto-play–which is why much of the industry focuses on quick, easy-to-consume content that will amass millions of disinterested views. For Vox.com’s ambitions, the team wanted a more engaged audience. “We were asking people to take a cigarette break with us,” says Posner. And as the team sought out new topics, the videos got longer–they went from three-ish minutes to five minutes, all the way up to eight minutes. Meanwhile, the site’s viewership grew–on YouTube Vox.com has over 4 million subscribers, up from 1.4 million in 2016 and 2.5 million last July. Vox video says that it clocked over 1.25 billion views over the last full year, and its average watch time has stayed at around four minutes.

From the beginning, says Klein, the idea of a TV show is always festering. The idea encapsulates how the website thinks about its work. Instead of focusing on ephemeral subjects that live and die by the news, Klein wanted the output to last. “There’s a lot of important issues in the world–both hard news, soft news, current affairs–that don’t go bad quickly,” he says.

The idea was that the collection of the work would create a library–indeed every person I talked to at Vox about video referred to this library creation. “There was now this opportunity to create an archive,” says Klein.

For Lauren Wiliams, Vox.com’s editor-in-chief, the hope was to build the team out for this new programming while retaining its already-existing essence. “It’s a challenge for sure to build to new platforms,” she says. “But if we’re talking about challenges, it’s not a bad place to be.” She sees the Netflix team as a larger, more ambitious program of what Posner et. al. have been doing already. “We want to inject that spirit of short-form into whatever new project we do.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

Building up the studio

This is why a project with Netflix seemed so attractive. Klein, Chad Mumm–the VP of Vox Entertainment–and others on the staff began formulating pitch ideas during the website’s second year in 2015. Mumm, in fact, started an office in Los Angeles in order to get Vox Media’s name in front of the big studios. The idea for this show went: Vox.com could create a show about “building a library–as opposed to orienting the editorial process, knowing that everything would be gone as soon as it aired.”

“Netflix was one of our hoped-for partners,” Klein says. Vox pitched multiple other studios the idea, of course. Mumm explains that the pitch process focused on broadening Vox’s appeal. Strategically, the streaming platform provided a new audience for their content. Mumm says the pitch showcased “an elevating of our ambition–we wanted to tell stories that were richer, deeper, longer.” He goes, “On top of that, we wanted to take topics that were broadly appealing–that we thought could introduce new audiences to what Vox does so well.”

Ultimately, after a good deal of back and forth, Netflix signed on. The idea was to create a program that went deep into niche topics–gene editing, Korean pop, the racial wealth gap. Netflix gave the Vox producers a good chunk of money to go out and create these episodes in exchange for most of the rights. Instead of having to make a pilot, the first two episodes were given more time so the team could figure out a system and rhythm.

With the cash infusion, Posner was able to build up his team quickly. In the course of a month there were more than about two dozen people helping create these new shows, including Gordon who defected from Last Week Tonight. One video producer who’s worked with Vox video since close to the beginning, Estelle Caswell, wanted to do an episode about K-pop music–something she knew very little, but was always intrigued by. She flew out early this year to research and film the episode, and over the course of two weeks was able to capture the entire program. A little over a month later, the finished product was nearly ready for view.

This, says Caswell, is one of the most amazing parts about transitioning from a digital video team to a television crew. With Netflix, “the creative opportunities expand.” She goes on, “we’re used to making videos for zero dollars–there’s no budget to spend $10,000 to travel or something.” But when you have a studio backing your pursuits and you’re asked to be more ambitious, it gave her the ability to do projects she never thought possible before.

“I went to film school and all of my peers are in the entertainment industry, but they have not had this opportunity yet after four years,” Caswell says. “That’s crazy.”

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Melissa Bell, Publisher of Vox Media and a co-founder of Vox, is even more ambitious in her vision. “I think there’s an insane opportunity to create better television,” she says. Bell thinks a lot about how people spend their time online, and up until now never realized how TV could fit into that formula. We’re currently in a television renaissance, she says, but “not in the news space.” And she believes we’re just now beginning to see how news and documentary form can be subverted by these media companies that aren’t tied to any one specific platform.

Posner goes even further. He worked in documentary film before joining Vox, and always found the process stifling. Filmmakers would spend a year making a finished product that would be 90 minutes–which is what festivals like Sundance expect. It would take upwards of two years to produce and finally distribute, because that’s just how things worked. It was either that or raw news video à la cable TV, which could be produced over the course of a day. “Could there be a different cycle here?” he wondered. Something that was more akin to magazines, but without the lead time of a feature film.

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

“Our eggs are very heavily in the YouTube basket”

If you were to analyze the last few months to a year in digital media companies’ video strategies, you’d likely notice a new trend: Many, like Vox, are looking toward these other platforms for new distribution opportunities, namely companies like Netflix. Vice is probably the first, which launched both its cable channel Viceland and its HBO news show Vice News Tonight. BuzzFeed also has programming beyond its normal Facebook lineup, including a weekly morning show streamed on Twitter, as well as a new documentary series that Neflix picked up as well.

For all of them, the hope is to not only increase audience but build a little bit of padding from the turbulent past. Over the last two years came the rise and fall of the pivot to video, where many publishers went all in on social video in an attempt to following every changing Facebook algorithm. It didn’t work out as planned–after a small period when Facebook was shoving any and all viral-seeming videos on its News Feed (read: mostly food videos), it changed course and decided to emphasize other content. This led to a bloodbath. Many video teams were cut almost entirely–Vox Media, for instance, saw many layoffs earlier this year, most of which focused on these social video teams. Other media companies folded or saw their traffic plummet to historic lows.

“One of the things that everyone is learning from Facebook is that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” says Fong. “Our eggs are very heavily in the YouTube basket.” Vox isn’t the only one. Indeed, nearly all successful digital media video programs revolve around YouTube and its huge and engaged audience. But were that to go away for whatever reason, all these teams would be screwed. “The idea of having this IP business,” says Fong,” is having this diversification strategy for distributing our work.”

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The over-the-top future

Mumm’s entire role, however, is looking beyond diversification. “Our strategy has been: We want to build a lasting television business,” he says. It’s currently in phase one, which is establishing that the Vox Media brands have relevance for television program. He’s been working for three years to prove to studios that his company can make shows that buyers are interested in purchasing. “That’s not as easy as it sounds,” he says. Mumm adds that the worst of this phase is over. “We’re in discussions all over town, we have more announcements coming.”

The next part is more nebulous. Now Vox Media has a few shows in the pipeline and it’s trying to prove its credibility. Once that’s done, Mumm wants to give his company more power. Currently, companies like Netflix are taking chances on these digital media platforms in exchange for most of the rights. Once they prove they have staying power, only then could they potentially have leverage to retain more control. Mumm sees a future where Vox Media could outright own more of its own shows; it could “act like a studio.”

And from there come phase three, where it would build its own distribution in order to get “closer and closer to consumers.” Mumm adds, “We want to create the preeminent nonfiction studio that the world has ever seen.”

This last phase is a hard one, because such a successful apparatus doesn’t yet exist. Viceland has been hemorrhaging money and reportedly failing to acquire new audiences. Other publishers have looked toward OTT options, including channels on devices like Apple TV and Roku, but using those to acquire new eyeballs is anything but a sure thing. Mumm agrees that the industry is too nascent and a clear path has yet to appear. The plan is to build more shows now, get more popular, leverage more rights. And from there, “attack when the OTT strategy is more clear.”

For Bell, this strategy is imperative for Vox Media’s future. “If we’re not testing out new forms, we do run the risk of not meeting the audiences where they are and where they will be,” she says. Ultimately, this is a very long game. “The internet is in such constant flux–we want to be sure that we’re thinking proactively.”

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About the author

Cale is a Paris-based reporter. He writes about many things.

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