I continue my conversation with JJ Shebesta, the former head of video at The Onion, about the challenges facing publishers and media companies in an age of digital disruption, as well as the unique niche that The Onion fills in the media world.
Matt Hansen: Thank you for listening. Welcome to Air Quotes, the podcast about invisible marketing. Air Quotes is the flagship podcast of the Cardwell Beach Network. This is our weekly conversation about media, technology, business, publishing and marketing. My name is Matt Hansen.
Dave Donars: My name is Dave Donners. I am the Chief of Research at Cardwell Beach.
Matt: Any thoughts about last week’s episode, this episode, or anything whatsoever, email us at email@example.com. Or tweet us at cardwellbeach.
Dave: So today we’re going to discuss Univision’s recent 40 percent purchase of The Onion for $20 million. And with us today we have JJ Shebesta, who is a long time friend of mine, so let that just be known, first of all. But more importantly, he has real insight into this topic.
JJ: My name is JJ Shebesta. I am a writer and director and I was the Creative Director for Onion Video up until November of 2014.
Dave: I mean, I think two things really hurt the publishers in the last decade. Two things really, really, really hurt the publishers in the last decade. One was the recession, which totally put the hands back into the advertiser. There’s no question about that. And then the second thing is that this digital, um, diaspora was happening at the same moment. Now that the recession’s over and now that that inventory is starting to settle in, what you have is I think things are shifting back to the publishers’ hands. Like I think Univision got kind of a steal at $200 million for The Onion. Because I really think over a five or a ten year curve, they make that money back pretty substantially, plus they increase their holdings in English language. The reality is that they get to be seen as a big player, and yeah, I’ll stop talking, because I want to get into audience stuff with you. But I mean, to play on that, before this digital placement thing resolves itself, can you talk about the maximizing of efficiencies and the cross channel stuff that you’ve seen, and how that works?
JJ: Well, I mean, one there’s that question, which I can respond to, but I think it’s actually pretty standard and everyone knows the dynamic inherent in that. There’s such a bigger conversation that’s exciting about just the future projections of what new forms these things take, because I would really argue in a lot of ways what we’re looking at is like a lot of different bubbles being created. You know what I mean? We’re not looking at a very linear like evolution. So it’s probably more complicated than that, but in regards to like those efficiencies and stuff like that, I mean you mentioned it before. I mean, there’s a lot of very straightforward, when you look at any sort of merger, you try to take, you know, you try to create those efficiencies by way of having the company like Onion not have to worry about certain things that may be more robust that Univision has in place. And the Onion, then it’s like them getting from the Onion strengths like their audience and the integrity and the brand, and the content creators and the giant network of content creators who have gone on to do such amazing things in the industry. You know, it’s like that’s, there’s a lot there. So I mean for me, it’s like yeah, there are those savings and there are those efficiencies to be had, but I feel like that’s just kind of straightforward. I mean that’s just kind of traditional merger stuff.
Dave: But in terms of like do you think that Onion Video content could be used just beyond people going to the Onion or ClickHole or something like that? Like just traditionally, like surfing a browser, going to a url, like is it, you watch it on TV? Is it something you can watch on different channels? I mean, social channels?
JJ: Yeah, yeah, I think yes. I think you absolutely, I mean not only can it, I mean one, I think either, there is absolutely yes you can. And there are delicacies with how the Onion makes that transition, because in the past, the Onion is so weird in the sense that it’s not Funny or Die, it’s not College Humor, it’s not all these other things, it actually is a universe. It’s like Marvel. Like that’s really what it is. It’s a world, it’s a conceit. And so you don’t have, traditionally it’s not been set up in a way, and admittedly it also has AV Club and now is building out to other things, but like so that is, so there’s that, too. But in so many ways, its biggest strength is like the Marvel universe. And look at Marvel, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like when you look at Marvel, it’s like how big can Marvel grow? How many are talking about like when are we going to get tired or when does this get like, when are they trying to push it too far?
Dave: Right. They made Ant Man. And they made Ant Man.
They have a thousand characters, and they’ve already made Ant Man.
JJ: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. So it’s like the Onion is a weird example like that. But it doesn’t, because of the AV Club, very luckily because of the AV Club being a big part of its DNA and being such a really cool property with integrity that also has a lot of, I think has a lot of crossover in regards to kind of mission and voice and brand that the Onion, you know, news network or the Onion paper does, it is, the Onion is set up in a way where it can still find a through line so it is creating more traditional media content. And I know they’re actively doing this, and it’s been out there that they are, and they’re moving into it more aggressively. I think they absolutely can. Now will all of that content live within the Onion universe, like? No, there’ll be AV Club shows that are more in the world of that. And I think there also will, there will be and there will have to be things that are narrative driven or satirically driven that don’t explicitly live in that universe. Now what shape that takes, at this point we don’t know. I mean, we don’t know until those things start like, until those things start landing. But yeah, I think it has an incredible amount of potential if only by looking at all the people at the Onion who have been leaders in creating things like the Daily Show, or people who are like driving Saturday Night Live now, or all kinds of things. I mean, the people at the Onion now populate pretty much every comedy show that you watch now. And it’s, and this provides, this will hopefully provide them an opportunity to be able to have those springboard off of the Onion brand, but not in a way that sullies or waters down or complicates the beautiful purity of the like Onion universe.
Dave: I think that that’s great. And speaking about the AV Club, do you see that the AV Club is picked up by, if a writer is from the AV Club, it’ll be picked up by NPR. I mean, there’s times where I’ve seen stuff from the Wall Street Journal reviewing people who write for, talking to people about the AV Club about what their top five movies were of the year, or top five albums of the year. It’s a very broad brand. And I think your Marvel comment is very good, that it’s not just the satirical news element, that there’s a lot going for the Onion beyond kind of, kind of like a Funny or Die. I mean, because Funny or Die is the thinnest of the four, between Cracked, The Onion, College Humor and Funny or Die, right? Funny or Die has these thinnest type of offering. It doesn’t have much more than the one note that it hits. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just very monotone.
JJ: No, I would say you’re actually, or at least my appraisal of that would be different. I mean, Funny or Die has got a lot of TV and movie properties that have been developed or in development. Same is true for College Humor. Those, I mean you’re really looking at the same model. I mean probably the same is true for like Buzzfeed and stuff like that, just at least not as developed. But there are, I mean Funny or Die, it’s like you could break them all down. One thing I would argue is that they’re less constricted. All of those, I mean all of those companies have different brands. Their brands, the mission and the voice and the conceit, it’s not a conceit, the weird thing is the Onion is one of the only ones that has like a heavy conceit, but they’re certainly less restricted, so you have a lot more variety of the content that they do and can do. I mean Funny or Die has changed a lot. I mean I feel like it started out a lot with like you’re looking at a playground for celebrities and then you’re also looking at something, you know, the early McKay stuff that is very politically leaning, very left-leaning. I mean, I just saw The Big Short, which is really awesome and I think is like a very, a much more adult version of kind of like what that started by and was its bread and butter. In some ways it kind of has lost its footing there, but I see it kind of regaining that. You know, College Humor is definitely a different, it’s a different story. But all of them are kind of really playing the same game, I think.
Dave: One of the things that I find really, really difficult to comprehend with this is that exactly who are the Onion’s competitors, in the truest sense, because you’ve got the AV Club with extremely, and both ends of this are very, very high end, but extremely high end consideration of reviews. I mean, I don’t, I think the New York Times is great for a lot of stuff. I think they do great international coverage and stuff like that. But like I really don’t give a damn what they think about a certain album or not. You know? Like I really don’t care. I don’t think they’ve got the best cultural critics on the planet. I think the old grey lady can be respected for a lot of stuff, but this is not one of them. I think the Onion is clearly superior in that end. I mean, in terms of film critique, it’s, to me it’s the best corral of writers and film critics on earth. I don’t know what’s happening with Le Monde. I seriously don’t know what’s happening in like different areas of Mena with like Middle Eastern film critics and stuff, because I only know English. But in terms of English language criticism, I think it’s the very, very, very highest end. And they are just about at the highest end with music, too. And they’re very well respected for books. Like I don’t, and then you merge that with this satirical stuff, which is still, I think, a little bit aimed a little bit older, and it’s just more sophisticated than a lot of other stuff out there. Like who are, who’s the competitions for the Onion? Like where do eyeballs go if they don’t go to the Onion?
JJ: Well, I think the gross thing is it’s like it’s everybody. I mean, it’s just such, I mean I feel like publishing has been this thing that had some order to it, and then a couple of key things shifted and then it was just dashed. And just like, and at this point I think it’s just such a mess, and I don’t even know if people know. I mean, you’ll hear these, you’ll hear the talking points of it’s all about Millennials. And you’ll hear the talking points of it’s all about video, it’s all about mobile video. And it’s like you can, you can break that down, but I just really don’t know how, I feel like that’s trying to like put out easy answers. I think, that’s a really tricky, that’s interesting, that’s a very, very tricky question. I think that you’re very right in that if you wanted to identify well, what makes the Onion different than its competitors? If you’re talking about the AV Club, which you should be, it’s like you’re breaking that open to a lot of other people other than just like comedy institutions. And it’s, but the thing is the through line, brutally honest, and it’s really, it has a lot of integrity. And I think it is, even though things can go blue or things can be really silly, I think it’s really, really sophisticated. And the thing is, like to me it’s like that has such value, because it’s not, if you’ve got a lot of money it’s not that hard to do a bunch of videos about, you know, like Batman having sex, and then like you’ve got a bunch of people watching that video. You know what I mean? It’s like there’s a lot of really cheap where, I don’t want to watch that video, but like there’s a lot of really cheap ways that you can deconstruct your analytics.
Dave: I’d watch that.
JJ: Based off of what’s trending, and just churn out shit. And I think if you really stepped outside of what content is being spilled out over the internet and really looked at it through that lens, you’d honestly say that the vast majority is that. It’s really, it’s a really cold, soulless like calculated thing that’s putting out like really kind of like really lazy and offensive, on a level of just people’s intelligence and what people deserve, content. And unfortunately, people do flock to it because it’s like, you know, more people eat hamburgers than they do something that’s going to be good for them. But the thing is, then people grow up and they realize they can’t keep eating all those hamburgers. Like their metabolism won’t like handle it. And that’s probably a super lame metaphor. But like regardless, regardless it’s like I think that is a thing that makes it a very, very singular property that has, and I think also again, in the AV Club and the Onion, has its roots in kind of like the construction of the historical identity of this country’s kind of cultural criticism and its like satirical makeup. Like very much so. It’s been a leader in that sense. And so like that to me is like, what is its audience? Its audience is probably smart, it’s probably smarter people. Like its audience is going to be smarter people. But the thing is, I think over time a lot of people who are dumber people become smarter people, because eventually you just get exhausted and there’s no nourishment in shit. Or they die.
Dave: Or they die. But to that point, you read some of these articles, you know, we have a show sheet and we pass it around looking at some of the links that we see. Talking about lazy, I do think it’s a form of lazy journalism that they say…
JJ: Yeah, I agree.
Dave: I don’t know that the appeal that the Onion has to a lot of current 14-year-olds. Maybe it does, maybe it’s still really good, but I don’t know if it’s the high peak of their audience relevance. And to speak about the Onion as a property, maybe parsing it out from the AV Club, but I don’t know. I think that if you merge the two, I think it’s really the high water mark of what Gen X did. Like Gen X’s great success hasn’t been in business or it hasn’t been in politics or changing the world. You know, Generation X is smooshed between two generations that did a lot for creating businesses, generating business, a lot for political change. But there’s this small generation where the most high caliber of what you can do is cultural. And the highest, highest form of that in the American sense is the American satirical thing that also has real depth in its cultural understanding and criticism. Because, this is me looking on the outside from comedy, so this is me just blabbing, so I apologize to everyone. Everyone that’s involved in this, listeners included. But like the thing to me with comedians is that comedians are so good at what they’re doing, but there’s never really a good, it’s never merged with like yes, and you know what the top ten best albums of the year are, and yes, you’ve got a very distinct and distilled sense of the top ten films of the year. And yes, you’re really on top of the top ten novels. And there’s this one entity, one single brand name which hammers those four aspects of cultural criticism in those three main areas, as well as comedy. I don’t think anything else does. I don’t think Saturday Night Live does that that well. I mean, Saturday Night Live will topically have whatever band is popular at that day and age, but it’s not the best band. Like you’re saying, it’s like a dead, soulless thing. Like The Weekend was on a while ago, and if you love The Weekend, that’s great. But like I don’t think that a lot of the writers are deeply involved with making sure that the booking of The Weekend occurred. To me, the Onion is the only thing that blends this in any effective manner.
JJ: Well, even just that, I think you’re right just even if just that terminology or people, I mean all it is is a buzzword that people like to throw around because it makes it seem like they’ve got their finger on the pulse of something, which if anything, I think like it just really betrays an incredible amount of laziness and ignorance. But I think people use the word Millennials as a term to represent the fact that you’re looking at a demographic, you’re looking at all kinds of different demographic bases that are fundamentally changing, and I don’t think are even defined by when they were born. And so you’re talking about just being relevant. You’re talking about just kind of like transitioning and disrupting or all those fun terms with like, with the spirit of where everything is moving. I think that’s the way people use it. And I could be, I really could be wrong, but a lot of times it just seems really like lazy, it seems really naval gazing or like you’re prognosticating in this really lame way. Like I know a bunch of Millennials, and like they’re so different. Like you’re looking at like consumption habits and like cultural appropriations that are so varied. It’s like I don’t think it can be, everyone wants to reduce something. Everyone wants to reduce it to this like clean analytic that then can be actionable. And I think that, to me that always feels really lazy.
Matt: Thank you for listening to Air Quotes, the podcast about invisible marketing. We’re brought to you by the Cardwell Beach Network. My name is Matt Hansen, Head of Content.
JJ: My name is JJ Shebesta, Cardwell Beach Snake Master.
Dave: My name is Dave Donars, Chief Research Officer of Cardwell Beach. Please check us out on Stitcher, iTunes, SoundCloud.com/CardwellBeach. And you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.