At Tubefilter we live and breathe the digital media / online video / influencer / whatever-marketers-are-calling-it-these-days industry. We’re constantly scouring the web and sources for stories while being pitched literally hundreds of news items a week to turn into several articles a day so you can stay up to speed on what’s going on in the space. And when we’re not doing all that, we talk about what’s going on in the industry. A lot. We have these kinds of Gchat, Slack, and sometimes even in-person conversations all the time. We just finally decided to publish them.
To provide you with some context to the conversation below Casey Neistat is an incredibly popular YouTube star with more than 8.8 million subscribers and tens of millions of views on the video-sharing site per month.
Neistat started a company called Beme way back in 2014. It was a new kind of video-oriented social network focused on honest interactions that initially saw some success, but failed to gain enough momentum to maintain its initial upward trajectory. The Beme product, more or less was floundering when Neistat and co. agreed to sell it to CNN in November 2016 for a reported $25 million. The promise of a top-tier, creative YouTube star who could connect with and speak to the kids these days was exciting for everyone paying attention and the team the CNN-owned Beme assembled was inspiring (as was some of the content it produced).
But Neistat just left the company and Beme will cease to exist as an independent brand at CNN. It’s pretty big news. So, naturally, we had a casual conversation on Gchat about it:
Joshua Cohen: Sam, how’s it going?
Sam Gutelle: WHAT’S UP, @*%C^es!
JC: Let’s try this again. Sam, how’s it going?
SG: I feel like I’m being censored
JC: Yeah, you can’t write “WHAT’S UP @*%C^es!” in the first line of this new kind of column. Other people are going to read it.
SG: But…you just wrote it.
JC: Yes, but, I wrote it to let you know that writing it was wrong. Ugh. I feel like we’re getting sidetracked here already. Whattup?
SG: I’m just here to talk about memes and Bemes.
JC: There we go! And yeah, whattup with Beme?!?!?! WTF happened?
SG: I would have thought that major media companies would have understood by now that a vlogger’s success on YouTube does not preclude success anywhere else, given that basically no vlogger has ever made a meaningful jump off YouTube? Am I wrong about that?
JC: You’re right and you’re wrong. No vlogger has successfully made a meaningful jump off of YouTube into another video-based entertainment medium (though they are all REALLY good at podcasting and selling books). So yes, that part is right. But you’re wrong in that this wasn’t a jump anywhere else. It was a skip over to another YouTube channel.
SG: But that’s even worse! Fanbases on YouTube hate jumping to new channels.
JC: True. But do you think that was ever the point? You think they expected the vast majority of Casey’s audience to come over to Beme News and watch? I think CNN’s acquisition was more of a play to invoke the Casey Neistat “I got great camera angles and have you seen these drone shots I’m editing in, all in the spirit of creating some semblance of a compelling narrative!” writ large on the network wherever it wanted to attract Generation YouTube. And given Casey’s success, that seems like a good bet. Maybe even a good enough of a bet to put $25 million on.
SG: The thing that I never understood about this deal is that what you’re describing — a news program based on social media, inflected with a hip, seat-of-your-pants, offbeat presentation. CNN already has one of those. They have Great Big Story, and Great Big Story is doing well for them. They’re pulling in a lot of traffic. So what was the point of giving Casey Neistat $25 million to make something that’s only going to look slightly different from Great Big Story? Why not just invest that $25 million into that?
JC: True, but that’s relatively easy to say now that GBS is a burgeoning platform and brand with what’s starting to become a distinct voice. Back in 2016 it was still nascent. Putting multiple bets on multiple platforms and programs to attract a young audience isn’t necessarily a bad strategy. And since, CNN has put $40 million more behind GBS. But, so, why do you think Beme didn’t work out?
SG: You saw Casey’s statement, right? His heart obviously wasn’t in it. It seems like the vast majority of his fans didn’t want it, too. They just wanted more of that sweet vlog with unbelievable airline seats that makes you want to go to wherever he’s shooting from. I mean the initial timing of the deal seemed perfect. Beme wasn’t a raging success, Casey was burnt out of the daily vlog grind and made it clear he wanted to do something different, anything but what he was doing already. And then here comes this company throwing $25 million at him. Is he really going to say no to that? It’s an amazing opportunity that seemed to fit so perfectly with what was going on in his life, but maybe building that brand was never what he really wanted.
JC: That CNN pitch to Casey must’ve been awesome. Envision that for a sec. You got Jeff Zucker in the room. He’s a big deal! The guy’s responsible for Fear Factor, the last couple seasons of Friends, and kinda sorta the Donald Trump presidency. He’s now head of one of the most iconic news brands in the world. So you got him telling you how awesome you are and how with the CNN name and resources you’re going to be able to change how an entire generation consumes and thinks about news. This could have immediate and serious GLOBAL implications. You could change the world! Literally. That’s a very good pitch. Plus, you get to be on the cover of Hollywood Reporter with Zucker and Anthony Bourdain. I mean did you see this photo?!? It’s objectively a very bad ass photo.
SG: Anthony Bourdain makes every photo badass.
JC: Agreed. You take him out and it’s less badass. But still. With that pitch, how could you not want to stop doing what you’re doing and then be a part of that mission and ESPECIALLY THAT PHOTO?!?!
SG: I think this all comes around to the same issue that some of the Logan Paul stuff comes around to. There are these YouTubers with huge, huge audiences, and because of those huge audiences, they are automatically ascribed some value from observers. But that value doesn’t necessarily translate and could be worth very little outside of that core audience. Was Casey Neistat ever a “news” person? I mean, he covered the protests against the travel ban and discussed his decision to vote for Hillary Clinton, but he wasn’t really trained in news reporting or journalism. And CNN, despite what our President may say, they have a responsibility to deliver a high level of journalistic integrity. I’m not sure that responsibility was ever gonna mesh with the off-the-cuff vlogging Casey Neistat is known for.
JC: Sure, but whether or not Casey interned for Woodward and Bernstein doesn’t really matter. He’s the creative guy behind this. It’s his vision. Who cares if he has a degree in journalism? He doesn’t and that’s part of the point. But to your point, he and his team just weren’t able to bottle up that Neistat mojo and sprinkle it on more news-y types of programming. Honestly, I kinda think they just thought about it too hard. Casey has this HUGE audience and a MASSIVE mission and undoubtedly felt a lot was at stake for his own persona. The Hillary video got him a TON of blowback. I’m guessing that played a VERY BIG role in this kind of paralysis. He saw his audience’s and the community’s reaction to that and then wanted to thread a needle where the programming can be informative and engaging, but without alienating anyone. That’s tough when you cover news topics. It all HAD to have had an impact on the pace of the production. It feels like they wanted to nail the tone just right, and so they never really got started. I mean, they hired Jake Roper in April of 2017, ended with a staff of 22, and have 41 videos on the channel? They should have like at least 4X or 5X that by this time, right?
SG: Right, but that’s what I’m saying. I think we agree on this. You say “who cares if he has a degree in journalism.” I think CNN cares. I think that CNN was always going to go about a partnership with a YouTube star in a careful, calculated way, and Casey’s personality and his videos are so good because they’re NOT calculated. They have an air of spontaneity, and you really feel like you’re in this guy’s life. I think that’s more why this failed. Because companies like CNN aren’t trying to put out fun, whimsical, well-shot videos. They have to be researched and fact-checked. And they can’t put out 200 videos in nine months because all that takes time.
JC: Agree to disagree on the reasoning (I still don’t think they care about him have a journo pedigree), but the conclusion is the same. Maybe just having the big letters of CNN casting a shadow down on you and seeing the silhouette of monotone salt shaker made animate Wolf Blitzer around the office imposed a sense of “DO NOT EFF THIS UP!” on Casey and his crew. If anything, I think this will be the last deal we see where a major YouTube star who’s independently doing incredibly well partners with another major media company on anything that requires more than an infrequent amount of time. The priorities just aren’t aligned. As Casey said, he couldn’t figure out what to do so he just went back to vlogging. Imagine that PULL OF VLOGGING! It’s gotta be so strong. Just think of the feeling once you post that vlog and see those numbers go up and the comments come in. That’s gotta be some kind of high that’s just too tough to shake.
SG: But Casey seems a little burned out on vlogging. He quit and he came back and all that. I think there was a good way for him to try something new alongside a deep-pocketed media company, but this wasn’t it.
JC: But it’s never going to work. Let’s just look at the numbers on this. Beme sold to CNN for a reported $25 million. Let’s bypass some back of the napkin calculations on potential earnouts and early investor percentages and just say Casey walked away with a few million bucks. And he has the opportunity to make a few million more if he hits his earn outs. But he can also just post vlogs a few times a week and make that money in nine months off of Adsense and a few branded deals. And I’m not saying Casey’s all about the money. Not at all. But money can be an indicator of the value of your time and if you’re time is worth more if you do this other thing, you’re going to get pulled in that direction.
SG: I still disagree. The question is whether, in 2018, CNN’s status as a legacy media brand means enough to get someone like Casey excited to work with it. If NBC came up to a YouTube star and said, “We want to make you the lead anchor of our nightly news,” I don’t see how anyone would turn down that opportunity, even if it meant a pay cut. But maybe in our current moment, those partnerships with legacy brands aren’t meaningful because consumer trust in those brands is so low. I think it’s important to wait a few years before we write off the possibility of a partnership like this working. Let’s see if the “fake news era,” in which legacy news media brands are often discredited on social media, sticks around or if it’s merely a byproduct of Trumpism.
JC: That’s true. I’d watch Philly D after Rachel Maddow on MSNBC or after Shephard Smith on FOX. And if he replaced muffled vanilla ice cream cone come to life Wolf Blizter, I’d tune into CNN 24/7.
SG: I get the feeling you’re not a huge Wolf Blitzer fan.
JC: I think you mean, “BREAKING NEWS. THIS JUST IN. OMFG. I get the feeling you’re not a huge Wolf Blizter fan.” And so what do you think is next for Casey?
SG: Well good thing you brought up PhillyD, because I think Casey, fairly or not, is often compared to him. They’re similar in age, their political views seem to line up to a certain extent, and they are usually two of the people who are first to voice their opinions on big YouTube/inudstry news. And it just so happens that PhillyD is trying to launch his own news brand right now. So, I think if I were Casey I would sit tight, keep doing the vlog, and see how my friend Philip DeFranco progresses with his off-YouTube Patreon-funded news venture he’s setting up. And if that works, then maybe I get the idea that I don’t have to work for Ted Turner because I can be the next Ted Turner.
JC: I’m all for DeFranco / Neistat 2020. But I don’t think Caey really cares about the news. I mean he cares about the news, but this wasn’t going to be a long-term vehicle for his creativity. The dude likes making stuff. I hope he gets on a vlog schedule he can handle while finding the time to make a more nuanced something or other on a consistent basis.
SG: Maybe he’ll get really into whittling and woodworking. The future is cloudy.
JC: As long as you can film it with something made by DJI, I’m sure it’s a possibility.