TV OF TOMORROW 2017: Turning The Spotlight on The Young Turks

This year’s TV of Tomorrow (TVOT) conference took the opportunity to turn the spotlight on individuals whose businesses are counted among the biggest success stories in digital media and content creation.  One perfect example is the YouTube political commentary sensation The Young Turks.  Appearing for the special Q&A, CEO CENK Uygur along with co-founder Ben Mankiewicz (who also hosts on Turner Classic Movies), talked about the genesis of their wildly successful podcast that morphed into a zeitgeist YouTube talk show, which now boasts over 30 digital channels shows across YouTube and Facebook.

The following are highlights from The Young Turks panel with TVOT moderator Tracy Sedlow:

TRACY:  The reason why I want to bring [The Young Turks] here to TVOT is because we like to look at success stories, we like to look at people who are innovative, who take risks, and who create new formats and look for ways to build interactivity or relationships with their fans, and The Young Turks does that in spades, of course.   Cenk, you invented this in a garage or somewhere in a basement, and now of course now you’ve got hundreds of millions of viewers.
CENK:    Ben and I started the show in my living room in a one bedroom apartment on Sunset… We now have 6 and 1/2  billion lifetime views with 200 million views per month. That’s 70 million unique viewers a month. We’ve got about 30 channels on YouTube and Facebook, and according to all the ranking systems, we’re Number 1. [Young Turks YouTube Link: ]

TRACY:    How did you come up with the idea, and why did you think it was going to work now?
CENK:   First, we just wanted to do a show that was half about politics, half about pop culture and just have fun. We worked together in Miami, and Barry Diller sold that network, and then I was working as a TV writer…  When we started The Young Turks in 2002, I was wondering how to have my own voice, because I was writing for others.
BEN:    We were friends, … and we were unemployed. He wanted me to say, “Hey, maybe I could do this with you.” And I wanted him to say, “Hey, you want to do this with me?”  And one of us said, “You know, maybe we could–” “Yeah, we should.” We did one show, and then we started doing them together, and we were doing them via satellite radio. That’s how long ago it was, we would do a show…  It had to be at least two hours and we would do it in his living room, and then we would take a CD of the show, and then we would wrap it up in cellophane and put it in an envelope and put a stamp on it and mail it to Sirius satellite radio. Three days later, they’d get it and then they’d theoretically play it on the Sirius channel. As it turned out, we did 45 shows… Then eventually we got the capacity to do it live.

TRACY: So how did you make the transition from radio into TV? I mean, did the funding come right away? 
BEN:    No. No. No.

TRACY:    These leaps happened. It’s been 15 years. But how long did it take you to make those big leaps? Those are very quick leaps in the history of television to get to where we are today. But what were those leaps?
CENK:    That’s right. We’re a 15-year “overnight” success story. So, we’re on radio, and at the time that was innovative. We were the first talk show for Sirius FM radio. And we did that for a long time in my living room, and Sirius realized we were on the air, and they called me into New York, and they said, “Well, we either need to fire you or pay you, because you’re not allowed to do this for free.” And we’re like, “Oh, great! Okay, I think.” And Jay Silver, radio broadcast programmer said, “Oh wow, you guys are surprisingly good. Okay great. We’ll keep you.” We were actually on Sirius Buzz at the beginning, which is more of a male-oriented, slightly lighter show. Remember, we started in 2002. Then all of a sudden, we’re gonna invade Iraq and Ben and I were almost the only ones outside of Amy Goodman at the national level going “No! That’s a really, really bad idea. Don’t do that.” So they’re like, “Okay, you guys got political, so let’s put you on Sirius Left.”
BEN:    Real quick, the idea of the show at the beginning was it was gonna be half politics, half J Lo’s ass. Like that was our show. We would talk about serious stuff for an hour and then the last hour would be nonsense… And then, as Cenk said, we went to war, and our big thing wasn’t so much political fire, as it was literally, “Why don’t you let the weapons inspectors do their jobs?” That was it. And then, so the political part took over the show and the second part went away.
CENK:    So I went to a diner in ’05 with a friend of mine who built NationBuilder. Really, really smart founder, Jim Gilliam. But I didn’t know that. I just thought he was some liberal dude. We were having a conversation, and I said I had this vision. Back in ’98 I wrote a novel about how my friends said online video was gonna take over TV, and they were like “You’re crazy that’ll never happen.” And so I’m like, “We’re doing radio, but what I really want to do is online video.” I said, “you know, I’m terrible at tech, I couldn’t set that up if my life depended on it.” And he’s like, “I’ll come over tomorrow.” So we got to move from my living room to a tiny little office in Miracle Mile in L.A. and did the radio show over there for a couple of years. When Jim said he set it up, we went and got a slightly larger office across the way. Still Miracle Mile/mid-Wilshire, and he did it. He came in and set up the cameras and tri-caster, and, boom, we’re on air.  From there on — we’re so old we just call it “trial and error,” now they call it “AV testing”  — so we AV-tested everything. We said, “Who cares! Let’s go on air. We’ll put some cable here, some chairs, a microphone and let’s get going.” Immediately, the audience started to help us, and that’s what made a difference. TRACY:    You were on YouTube immediately?
CENK:    No, so we started playing the video on our website, and we said, “Nobody’s coming here, so let’s try putting it elsewhere.” So, where do we try? Of course, MySpace. So, that was literally the first place we put it up, and I’m like, “can you put it up on Yahoo Messenger?”  Ben’s like, “I don’t know!” But after the show, our producers and us, which was five people for the whole thing, we’d get together and I’m like, “Jesus, You take Yahoo Messenger and whatever that is, and JR you take this.”
TRACY:    You can’t put video on Yahoo Messenger.
CENK:    And it turns out, you’re right. You can’t. One day, Jesus comes by and goes, “Hey, I’m hopeless here, check this out man. Look at what it’s doing on YouTube.” At that point, nobody knows what YouTube is. YouTube just got started. He’s like “Look at this man. Yesterday it was 17 and today it’s 178.” He shows me on the number of views on that particular video. The next day it’s, “Oh my god! 2000 people just watched that.” Back then it was like, “No way!” I remember our big hit was Jose Offerman throwing his back in spring practice.
BEN:    No, in a minor league game.
CENK:    In a minor league game, yeah. And again, I get a call from Jesus or Dave. They’re like, “Look at the Offerman video!” And it hit 100,000 views. Oh my god. That’s more people than Sirius had for the first 5 years. So then we knew we were off to the races. The part where the audience was helping us was –  so me, Ben, and Jill are sitting around and we have these giant radio mics in front of our face and we’re doing the whole show, and the audience is like, “Leave it in front of Ben and Cenk’s face, don’t care, but for God’s sake, move the mic away from Jill’s face. It’s called a lavaliere mic. Look into it.” They would literally tell us what we should order and where is a cheap place to get it. One day, a guy comes in and he’s like, “I think this is a better podcaster than you were using,” and hands it to us. Literally, in our office. So it’s made by the audience.

TRACY:    So, why do you think the audience responded so highly. Was it your personality? You’ve got a big personality.
BEN:    Definitely not my personality.

TRACY:    Ben’s much better with keeping people grounded. But was it the content, the camaraderie? Were people feeding it, a little bit, were people hungry for these kinds of conversations. I mean, what helped you make these huge leaps?
BEN:    Well, first of all, Cenk’s personality is magnetic — you’re just drawn to it. I was reading this HBO special coming out, a four-part series coming out about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine called “The Defiant Ones,” and I heard Jimmy Iovine on Howard [Stern]. [Jimmy is] an amazing, legendary sound engineer and producer, and he said that his big break — of course he worked for John Lennon — but his big career break as he moved forward was with Bruce Springsteen and he was talking about the enormous amount of time that they spent making “Born to Run” — again and again — and Howard asked him, “Didn’t that frustrate you? You’d work so hard and Bruce would not listen to it and just threw it in the pool at a hotel,” and Jimmy Iovine said, “No, not frustrated, Bruce is just the kind of guy you want to work for. You want to help him. You want to get him where he wants to go.” So, for the crew of The Young Turks, I think Cenk had the thing. There were some long hours and misdirection and a lot of floundering, but they wanted him to succeed, not necessarily because it pulled them up — just because you want to be part of something. That was a big part of it.  The other big part is that … in 2005, we’re in the middle of the Iraq war, we’ve just come off of an election where a series of a couple years where if you challenged President Bush,  you were called “unpatriotic,” and where really important voices were tamped down, but we didn’t have to answer to anybody. We were this totally independent show. Unquestionably, Keith Olbermann started to do it and he was really vital and critical voice at MSNBC and, online, we became this sort of confident, somewhat articulate voice suggesting that [the U.S.] had made egregious mistakes that were only getting worse. So, you said: is there a hunger for it? Unquestionably. The Huffington Post was starting that too. Unquestionably, there was a hunger for that — a response with this voice was not being met anywhere.

TRACY:    And it was being met quickly. People could find you online. They could choose the track of recourse. To what extent do you think that you were creating that audience that became interested in these topics, that you were educating and informing them? Or do you think you were feeding a natural community that was interested and had nowhere else to go? So did those two things feed each other or were you educating your viewers into becoming better viewers, more free viewers?
CENK:    I do, and I think it’s a little bit of both. In the beginning, as Ben described, and the email we would get most often was “I thought I was alone.” If you look at it from business terms, that meant that you were filling a market need. There’s all these progressives across the country and they had no one to speak for them. Pre-Olbermann, who was a national talk show host who was progressive? Again, Amy Goodman, doing a great job on Democracy Now, but outside of her, on a national level, it did not exist.
BEN:    And Phil Donahue, I don’t know how significant, or what kind of audience he’d have, he got fired for trying, and he got fired very quickly at MSNBC.
TRACY:    Also, I’m too tired to remember his name, but I can see his face on PBS.
CENK:    Bill Moyers?
TRACY:    Yeah, Bill Moyers.
CENK:   You’re right, Bill’s a wonderful progressive and he was moved to the side a little bit.  But that’s part of why we succeeded and why we did what we did. We didn’t have gatekeepers and we got to break all the rules. So if you wanted to go on radio, there used to be a path. TV there’s a separate path, and we said “No, we want to do YouTube.” Now, in a recent survey they ask young kids what’s the number one profession they want to be, and they said YouTuber. Back then, when you said YouTube, you were like, “Oh, sorry.” That was not a thing that was in any way respectable and professional, etc. But we thought, “No, let’s be responsive to the audience. This is where the audience is. People can talk all they like online. It’s not anywhere else. It’s here.” Later of course, Facebook rose up, but we, instead of doing a dispatch in his shows — in news, you’re supposed to be a dispatching it like, “I’m Wolf Blitzer, reporting on the news for 30 years.” Bless his heart. I’m sure he cares, but on air, he’s a rock. Right? So, I thought, “Why don’t we show people we care about the news.”
TRACY:    For news, now, I think people expect to be able to comment, participate. But you were really part of that new emerging trend or ability to do that. To what extent has the community, the attractivity, the social TV (which was the industry target for us) play an important part in the creation of your content and of your success?
CENK:    Huge, because I tell the audience, “We’re not The Young Turks, you’re The Young Turks.” So we’ve literally gotten our host from the audience. John Iadarola was a PHD student at the University of Texas, and he started submitting videos in and now he’s one of our largest, most important hosts. The list goes on for people who we’ve [hired].
TRACY:    Jimmy Dore?
CENK:    Yeah, Jimmy was through a friend, but yeah.  So we got to do everything we wanted.  John Salley came into our studio a little while back, and he’s like, “I want to come in and I want to do a show with you guys. Normally, I charge at this point, but I’m not going to charge you guys anything, because as I watch, I think, ‘How are they allowed to do that?’ Why isn’t anyone stopping them?”  People are a little too afraid to break the rules. But that’s how you become a “disruptor.” That’s the whole point of being a disruptor.

TRACY:    That’s what this community is about, right? These people have been committed to the multi platform direct to TV industry for decades, and they’re the ones who’ve been taking the risks so that now it’s possible. Sorry, you had to speak up, you got it.
BEN:    A couple of things more about that, going to YouTube. One, I thought it was a terrible idea and I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t think there was an audience there, I didn’t want cameras there. I wanted to wear a baseball hat when I had the show. I didn’t want to shave. I didn’t think it work. I thought it was nonsense. But I’m much more a part of the establishment than Cenk. So that just gives you a sense of my vision. And Cenk just, thankfully ignored my complaints. Then what’ s amazing, no matter how big this has gotten (70 million uniques a month, 200 million views and the closing in on 7 billion lifetime views), there’s still a whole swath of establishment — meaning people and competitions in Washington and the people who work around that whole thing — that still won’t come on the show and won’t respond to the show in some way, until we say …”We’re gonna broadcast same day on satellite radio.” So now, you still tell this enormous group of people who are making the decisions, those kind of people are like, “Well, since you’re on YouTube — nah.” .. But if you tell them, “We’re on Sirius satellite radio, would you guys –” and they are like “Oh, okay, alright. I guess you count. I guess there’s validity.” And I’m not making that up just to get a laugh. 100% true for an enormous lot of very powerful bunch of people.

TRACY:    But you are making inroads up to being a distributed content offered on all platforms, correct?
BEN:    Yes.

TRACY:    Your chief business officer was here last year, participated in our advertising and political discussion panel. From what I understand, you’re gonna be making deals or already have done. Can you talk a little bit about that and how big the network is and how many channels? You mentioned, but what is your multi platform future?
CENK:    So, I’m a huge believer in “skinny bundles.” They’re coming out now and we believe we’re gonna get into those “skinny bundles.” We think we’re going to be the TV station’s apples to apples. We have data to back that up. So, not just our  AVOD business that outperforms the big networks, but when we go to OTT — like Pluto’s OTT platform, we are Number One on the network. We have a monstrous 144 minutes (per viewer per month), which in digital is unheard of. So Top 10 in Amazon, Top 3 Comcast’s Watchable. So what we did was we built the show long-form/short-form. What I mean by that is, you could watch it as a 2-hour TV show or listen to it as a two hour radio show, but we do it second-by-second. Then we chop it up and then put up it on YouTube on Facebook. So most of the people who see our program don’t even know we have a live show. They just happen to see one of our videos on a certain topic. When you put it into an OTT or a “skinny bundle,” it is built for TV so it gets a lot of minutes viewed. You set up a win-win.

TRACY:    If the establishment doesn’t get you, or they’re afraid of you, or whatever your answer would be, they’re willing to take your money. They want you to participate in their “skinny bundles.” How are you making inroads into the establishment businesses?
CENK:    Well, the good news about the establishment is, it’s mainly about the money.  We perform really well, so they’re gonna make more money by having us on, than not having us on.  So the person making that deal is almost always a different guy who’s just trying to fill out his network or his platform, and he’s like, “Okay. We get a lot of incoming calls.” Everybody reads Comscore and Tubular and all the latest. So they just look it up and go, “Oh, okay. These guys are Number One. So I should call them.” So they’re just making a rational business decision.  When I go around to fans, I ask them, “Why do you watch us and where do you watch us?” That’s my focus group, at large. Number one answer to why they watch us is, “What else would I watch?”   From a money view, there really isn’t any other news show. There’s articles: Vox, Huffington Post, etc., but there’s no real other news show. I mean, the idea that you’re watching the CBS evening news is laughable.
BEN:  I was helping a friend who teaches a class, and these are journalism students at a university in Los Angeles, and I asked them to name any of the three major nightly network news anchors.
CENK:    I’m not sure you could.
BEN:    Right. No one could name one.
CENK:    Raise your hand if you know ABC‘s news anchor. Okay, four or five people in the room. That’s a record. In a millennial audience, the number’s zero.

TRACY:    So you captured a lot of audience this last year in particular because of the election. Is it because they want this different form of news outlet and they want to find it in a different way, maybe?
CENK:    It’s right now. So we grew 45%…
BEN:  And I remember we used to put up the show as “Young Turks, Hour 1, Segment,” and people were like, “What is that? What’s that mean?” Then someone had the idea of breaking up by segments saying, “Okay, remember when we talked about how Dick Cheney shot his friend in the face? Why don’t we just take that part and then put a title: Dick Cheney Shoots Friend in the Face.” It turns out, that does a lot better. So we learned and grew that way.

Where do you think you’ll be?  Where do you want to be in the next couple of years, the next five years, and how big can this get? What do you want it to look like?
CENK:    So I always say that we want to be the largest news network in the world, and then, you know, you’ll get some eye rolls etc. We still need to get a lot more before [that happens]. But I don’t see what’s wrong with moving the goal posts.  You wanted to be the Number One news show online, now that you are the Number One online news network, then you’re going to say “on all platforms,” and next time you’re going to be right. That’s exactly what I’m going to say. What a weird goal it would be if you’re like, “We’re gonna be Number Three!” Right?

TRACY:    Do you see yourself becoming a media brand, an entertainment and original content in storytelling, too, or are you going to stay with news/cultural content?
CENK:    Yeah, we’re going to stay largely with talk. That’s our “bread and butter.” That’s what we do really really well.  So from time to time, we dip our toe into sitcom or something that’s scripted. Steve is bigger on that, but that’s not our sweet-spot. So, we’re super focused on what we’re good at.

TRACY:    Is the future talk news? Because news production, news reporting, that’s the business. Is that business going to go away? Is that business so expensive now that you are the only type of news offering that’s going to succeed in the future?
CENK:    Well, it is expensive, and it’s hard to make a profit off of news reporting, gathering the news, etc. So we’ve decided we’re going to do a different model because we really wanted to do some news reporting after we’d done commentary for about a dozen years. So after Trump got elected, we asked the audience, “Can you guys fund it?” We did a specific donation offering just to hire reporters. We were going for $ 1 million and we raised $2 million. So, the audience gave us $2 million and we hired 13 people and built an investigative reporting team.

(Note:  This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

For more information about this year’s TV Of Tomorrow conference, you can read our prior article:

TV OF TOMORROW 2017:  What TV Viewers Need To Know About How Technology Is Making Content More Accessible and Profitable