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Former Buzzfeed president Steinberg '99 discusses future of media

When Jon Steinberg ’99 was a freshman, the University had just installed broadband in all of the dorms — things like Amazon Pantry and Hulu weren’t even yet imagined.

Steinberg, the former Buzzfeed president and chief operating officer, discussed the future of media and how viewership habits among millennials are changing the media landscape.

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In a lecture titled “The End and The Beginning of Television,” Steinberg began by explaining how quickly technology has come to impact people’s daily lives since the time he first arrived on campus.

“Nobody had a mobile phone, and internet technology was not a thing,” he said. “The computer science building ... was not that busy, and there weren’t a lot of people taking computer science classes.”

Steinberg, who is now the founder and CEO of Cheddar, a new video media company, explained that he describes the current media landscape as multiple “bets,” since new entrants to the industry have to make a bet on what the next big platform or technology will be. He noted that the founder of modern cable, John Malone, once told a banker who wasn’t convinced that cable was going to be successful that “conventional wisdom is usually right and seldom profitable.”

Steinberg noted that the takeaway from this quote is that people should pursue ideas that “are not right” because will be profitable. He said that everyone is living in a post-TV era, and displayed statistics showing the median age of viewers on certain channels. According to the Economist, viewership among 18-24 year olds has declined 45 percent over the past six years. In contrast, viewership by adults over 65 has grown by a smaller percentage.

“Despite the facts being undeniable, they are so shocking that people think they couldn’t possibly be true,” Steinberg said.

Another striking statistic was the median age of viewers on specific news channels, and Steinberg showed that the median age of MSNBC viewers was 63, while CNBC had a median viewership age of 67.

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“Half the audience is dead, right?” he joked.

Steinberg added that a small fraction of viewers on CNBC and MSNBC are below the age of 54, but despite this, these networks still pull in close to one billion dollars of revenue every year from cable companies. These cable companies pay networks based on how many customers have access to these networks, not on the number of people who actually watch the shows.

“I want to pick a business that does a billion dollars a year that nobody watches,” Steinberg said. “That sounds like a good thing to compete with, for me.”

He said that the bet that he is making is that in the future, nearly everyone will be watching two categories of content. One will be similar to Netflix, HBO, Amazon — long-form dramas, comedies, and documentaries. The other category will be short videos that people post on social media sites, like Facebook.

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“There will be nothing in between,” Steinberg said. “You will never watch cable news, you will never have a live news service, you will watch Netflix, and you will binge on garbage on Facebook.”

Steinberg said that his company, Cheddar, is focused on rebooting the “ambient window-on-the-world content,” which includes traditional news and business channels that inform people on day-to-day events. He explained that the difference with Cheddar is that this content will be delivered by millennial-aged correspondents, and the stories that will be covered will include talking speakers from Amazon, self-driving cars, and other interesting and inspiring stories.

Steinberg launched Cheddar in April 2016 and uses Facebook Live to broadcast its content. Today, it have one million live viewers per day, and he noted that Cheddar had the first live 360-degree view of the Snap Inc. IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, where Cheddar has a news desk. Steinberg noted that members of Congress have also begun to appear on Cheddar’s programs.

He explained that the total cost of hardware to broadcast their news service is under $800,000, since the cameras were built from scratch and are robotically controlled, while broadcasting in high definition.

“That’s miraculous, since you would be hard-pressed to buy a camera from a major news network for under $120,000,” Steinberg said. “The consumer-grade technology has done better than the industrial-grade technology.”

To demonstrate this point, Steinberg showed that a Cheddar reporter was able to broadcast the emergency appeal on Facebook’s Periscope by the ACLU on the first day of President Trump’s immigration executive order. He noted that MSNBC, which was unable to send a reporter to the courtroom, displayed Cheddar’s broadcast on its network.

Steinberg explained that in order for a media company like his to gain traction, it needs to be aggressive. It should strategically place content and should make deals as frequently as possible. Companies should sign contracts with distributors rather than simply agreeing to “terms of service” agreements. He explained that Cheddar has its content on Sling TV, and has been able to partner with Twitter to have its content live-streamed every day at 3 p.m. More importantly, Steinberg noted that Cheddar's business news content is “neighborhooded” with similar channels on Twitter, such as Bloomberg News, so that viewers who watch the channel know specifically what content to expect.

“We’re thinking creatively of other distribution methods in order to replicate this,” Steinberg said. Referencing Cheddar’s purchases of broadcasting licenses in five U.S. markets, he noted that Cheddar “will be able to broadcast to cord-cutters who have an antenna to consume news in addition to on-demand content.”

He noted that 70 percent of Cheddar's viewers are under 40 years old, which shows that millennials and young people are still interested in traditional topics like finance, investing, and business news. He added that Cheddar’s anchors are all young and diverse, and that their broadcast locations at the New York Stock Exchange and the Flatiron Building provide a window to the real world outside.

In the coming year, Steinberg explained that Cheddar will be launching two primetime non-news programs that aim to reboot previous proven and successful shows. One show, called “Pro vs. Pipsqueak,” will be similar to “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” except that the show will feature a child and a Wall Street analyst, who will debate whether a particular stock is worthwhile. Another idea is “Business Court,” based off of “People's Court,” which will feature ridiculous business controversies experienced by millennials, such as “should millennials be allowed to vape in the office?"

Steinberg explained that he has been amazed at how radically the world has changed over such a short period of time, using Amazon as an example.

“If you had told me five years ago that the people who ship the toilet paper to my house would win an Emmy, I would not have thought that that was possible,” he said, referring to Amazon’s Emmy wins over the past few years.

The talk was sponsored by the Entrepreneurship Club, and took place in McCosh 50 at 5 p.m.

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