Q&A: How Cheddar is reinventing live news for Gen Z & Millennials

September 17, 2018

Written by NewsWhip
cheddar header image

Media is changing at a faster and more extreme pace, year-to-year, month-to-month, day-to-day. As Millennials and Gen Z grow up, they expect to encounter news in the ways they’re used to — through social video, through mobile, through digestible content.

While their parents may have unfolded the business section of the paper on the train to work, or watched hours of market updates, these generations want their finance, business, and tech news in a very different way.

Enter Cheddar.

Cheddar has revolutionized how business & finance news is created and delivered. Through live streaming on OTT and other networks, Cheddar has been able to grow a passionate audience, in a once-thought irrelevant area to younger generations.

To learn more, we talk to Melissa Rosenthal, Executive Vice President of Cheddar.

Rosenthal comes from her previous role leading the global creative team at BuzzFeed, and building the native advertising business at BuzzFeed with Cheddar’s CEO and Founder Jon Steinberg. Steinberg is another BuzzFeed alumnus, its former President and COO.

She tells us how Cheddar got off the ground, and where it’s going in the new world of disruptive media. 

NW: So how did Cheddar get its start? What makes it unique? 

Melissa Rosenthal: The idea [for Cheddar] came from this monumental trend happening where young people are cutting the cord with cable, and they’re no longer watching prime time on TV.

We saw that actively happening in how consumption was changing, and how young people wanted control over what they were watching and what they were paying.

The second piece of the idea for Cheddar was content itself. With Amazon and Netflix controlling on-demand and Facebook short form video, the question was what happens to live news? Does it disappear or is there an opportunity to reinvent it?

We thought technology, media, and business news were very much ripe for disruption. We looked at who the current players were, like CNBC and Fox Business, and that their average audience age was around 67 to 69 years old.

Cheddar CNBC Fox Business
(Ed: How Cheddar’s Facebook Page stacks up to CNBC and Fox Business)

The conventional wisdom was that young people don’t care about live news, and they don’t care about technology, media, or finance. That piece of media is probably going to die, and that was it.

We disagreed, and we wanted to create something that could speak to all of the technologies and services that these young people were using.

We built a media company based on OTT and social disruption that speaks to the disrupters in the industries and the companies that young people care about, and not commodities like oil and gas.  

Cheddar seems like it skyrocketed onto the scene. What was it like, going from zero to hero?

It’s nice to hear you say that but it was pretty hard to build it. We started with shooting one hour of live video a day on the phone, to building up. That was the time that Facebook Live launched and we capitalized on that platform.

We went from doing one hour a day, to booking a few good guests, to booking more good guests, to expanding to two hours, and once we finally got the viewership up and up, our next goal was to be on one of the major OTT systems.

Sling was the first to bite and recognize the value of having a CNBC/Fox Business competitor. Once we were on Sling, it was a domino effect.

Others see the value in what Sling is doing to add new customers and subscribers, and to get this younger generation to switch over. It’s about having these younger, more hip media brands on their platform to attract new subscribers.

When we first started, the distribution channels would tell us that we were too small. From Sling, we proved our value to others. We’re bigger now, we have greater distribution, our guests are bigger, our content is stellar, and we’re a real competitor to CNBC and Fox Business.  

How did social media distribution factor into Cheddar’s growth?

At the same time, we wanted to create outside of Live. Live is our bread and butter, it’s what we thrive in and where we think the industry is really right for disruption.

But, we’ve also built this interesting social strategy on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. That strategy is based around clips of technology and gadgets that we believe our core demographic is interested in.

We understand that different things work on different platforms, so our social strategy has been to captivate an audience through these concept gadget videos. We scour the web to find videos of all of these cool things that people are inventing across the world.

No one was doing this in a capacity that we were doing it. A few were dabbling, but we decided to dominate [the space].

The first platform we started doing it on in a big way was LinkedIn. We sort of hacked LinkedIn to do this.

At the time, our brand page for Cheddar was small, but our founder’s page was very large. We started publishing through his page. Eventually, it skyrocketed, and now he has over a million followers on his page, and we do most of our publishing through his page and we also share it out to our LinkedIn page.

It was through being creative through the platforms, to figure out where these videos made sense.
So we’re growing in two ways — we’re growing through the social strategy and through our live networks.

Can you tell us about a day in the life at Cheddar now?

We’re now shooting 16 hours a day. We have two core networks and we have a network that’s a hybrid of the two, CheddarU.

Going from one hour a day to eight hours of live content and informing another network is not easy. It’s even less easy doing it with 130 people.

The real triumph is not the fact that we did it, it’s the fact that we did at the cost that we did it at. We did it with a fraction of personnel that a typical cable network would use to build something like this. That’s where we are extremely proud.

After that, the thought process was what else can be reinvented and needs a revamping for young demographics?

Where we set our sights next was CNN. No one wants to watch crisis news all day, where they’re covering Barbara Bush’s funeral all day. That just doesn’t make sense for a news strategy anymore.

So we created our second network, Cheddar Big News and that’s our CNN headline network competitor. It’s national news with a local news narrative. We’ll focus on the weather, we’ll focus on a moose on the loose. We cycle through the stories that young people care about.

Cheddar Big News
It’s a news network that you’re going to tune into to hear the news but it’s not going to make you scared, angry, or depressed. We focus on happy, positive stories too. It’s a little bit of a different take than the traditional news network that’s meant to scare you.

We looked at the ratings of what was doing really well on cable, and HGTV has some of the highest ratings. Why is that? You’re not going to watch HGTV and be frightened. It’s an escape.

How do we combat that and create a news product where people can find out what’s going on in the world without feeling like they need to go crawl up in a hole, after they watch it?

So, that’s what we created with Cheddar Big News.

What has become more important to your social strategy this year?

It’s less about what’s important to our social strategy, and more about how we’re disrupting, and the content topics that we want to focus on.

For instance, cannabis has become such a huge topic this year, with the recreational legalization in some states, and all of the new VC firms created to fund in it. It’s much more mainstream now, and there’s more interest in it, especially on the business side. So we created a show called CannaBiz.

Obviously, cryptocurrency has had an up-and-down year but it’s not going away, and blockchain technology is at its infancy, so we created a show, CryptoCraze.

Another content theme we’re talking about is Esports. Esports is the fastest growing sport in the world, so we’re going to be focusing on doubling down there.

That’s how we think about shows and content. What is here to stay? What are the content topics and the tech that are close to our mission?

That’s game-changing, and we have a trickle-down strategy that starts with Live and permeates its way into our distribution strategy.  

Did you learn anything from your time at BuzzFeed that has helped with Cheddar?

There are so many things. One is our hesitancy to be reliant only on social and only on platforms where you don’t own your O&O. We built this closed cable network that is distributed across many different platforms that are not just Facebook and Twitter.

Diversification has been the key for us. When we were at BuzzFeed, and everyone wanted to build the next BuzzFeed, we were thinking of how you diversify your content and where it lives and where it airs.

We also looked at the native ad model that we built for BuzzFeed and we wanted to create a similar advertising model that didn’t really exist. We took a lot of the learnings from there, in how do we integrate brands in a meaningful way.

A lot of the executive team comes from BuzzFeed, and we’ve grown together, and we know a lot about our experience and how we work together.

There’s a lot of great energy on a team that’s worked together so closely on building something that is really successful, and now building something else that is hopefully going to be really successful.  

How do you decide which topics to report on?

It’s both qualitative and quantitative. We consume a ton of media and we’re on social all the time, and we have gut feelings of the things that are not going away, like the bitcoin boom.

We have an amazing editorial team — world-class reporters, segment producers, and editors. They’re hands-on-the-ground every day, looking for the stories that make sense for our audience.

They’re the ones to figure out the pulse of what we should be covering and what we should be staying away from. They’re figuring out how we’re covering it, how we’re different from our competitors, and how to best communicate it to our audience.

What are your audiences like, as you expand into all of these new networks and programming?

We have three main audiences that we cater to.

Our newest is our college audience. Two months ago, we acquired MTV Campus Network, which is a closed cable network that exists only on college campuses. That has 600 campuses that are included in that right now, with 6,000 screens.

We fused our two networks together to create CheddarU. In addition to the content we have from those two networks, we also feature stories from college students. We highlight what’s going on on-campus, so the kids see themselves in the content and are actively engaged in that community. We’re making sure we’re highlighting the amazing work that they’re doing. College kids today are so smart, and so keyed in, and they’re evolving tech faster than we ever thought possible. To the other audiences, Cheddar is a very specific community. It’s the people that really care about tech and media and finance, and they certainly care in a different way about how these companies are they’re running their businesses. For instance, young people don’t only care about, “Hey, there’s a cool company to get in a car and get me from point A to point B”, but they really care about the person who runs Uber and what that company stands for, and if it’s an ethically sound company.

We’re able to bring that conversation and what people are talking about in our community, back into our programming.

That’s how we think about incorporating our audience into Cheddar. It’s the understanding of what young people are watching and how they want to be watching it. You want to hear what Trump said, but you also want to see the moose on the loose.

It needs to be a thoughtful news network and a little more understanding of the audience we’re going after.  

What are your challenges? How have you overcome them?

It’s mostly scaling. It’s less about the distribution because we’re where we want to be.

It’s what any business needs to figure out when they achieved the goal they set out for themselves in the beginning.

What’s next? Is there another type of content we need to invent? It’s less of a challenge and more of a fundamental question of what’s next for us, and we’re figuring that out right now.  

What are those next goals? Is there anything specific?

The goals are certainly more content. Launching Esports five days a week, and making sure we’re creating a strong program about the topics we feel strongly about. That’s number one.

Number two is getting into events and experiential, and how we bring this to the real world in a way that’s meaningful to people and impactful.

It’s really sustaining the content, making it fantastic, booking great guests, breaking scoops, and building the Cheddar network. We’re working toward all of that.  

Can you tell me about your guests and how that fits into Cheddar’s strategy?

One day you book a big guest and the next day you book a bigger guest. The rigor that it takes our team to book these people, the capacity of who we’re getting on air, is tremendous.

We want to be the network for early adopters. We want to focus on the trends people see in the industry, have the VCs investing in cool companies. We want to make sure our network is diverse and featuring female and ethnically diverse founders.

It’s making sure it’s a well-rounded mix, and making sure we have a lot of different voices that can speak to many different perspectives on a variety of topics.

We want to have people who are highly successful and the people that our viewers want to be. We have Fortune 500 CEOs on the days they’re relevant.

We think that entrepreneurs and execs are today’s rock stars. Athletes and celebrities are getting into investing. The way we can book now is very different from the way we could’ve booked years ago, because all of these A-list individuals are now involved in technology.

It’s a big part of what we do and we strive to get better at it every day and make sure the interviews are compelling.  

What are you most proud of that Cheddar has accomplished?

I’m most proud of being able to think about things differently, in terms of building this company.

Everything we’ve done here has been the antithesis of how you build something, and testament to that you can think differently and make it work.

I structured our team around the core element of making sure your clients are happy and producing really great content [with them], through a system where you’re not handing off clients once the deal has been sold.

Also, I’m proud of how we think about building the network of the future. It’s a triumph to the fact that we hire smart and hardworking people, who want to make a difference and are all aligned to this vision that things can be done better and that we can change an industry.

It’s only been 2.5 years, and we’re broadcasting 16 hours a day, we’re on every skinny bundle in the U.S., and people know who we are, and it took a lot of hard work to get there.  

What was your transcendental moment at Cheddar?

It’s always that moment when you start talking to people about what you do, and people say, “Oh, of course I know Cheddar”. It’s something you forget — I had totally forgotten how hard we had worked to make BuzzFeed a household name.

Doing that isn’t something that just happens overnight to you. While the effect you might experience happens overnight, there’s so much work that goes into it.

The moments where I bring up what I do and I don’t need to explain it anymore. People know of the company and they love what we’re doing. That makes me immensely proud. Moments where I realize, “Oh my god, I’m watching someone watch Cheddar right now on their phone.”

You shouldn’t discount the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of work to get there. The wind isn’t at our backs yet and we have to work even harder, but it’s being recognized.  

Any advice you’d like to impart upon our audience?

Stay humble and work really hard. Leave no stone unturned, and be open to new ideas and ways of thinking is really important.

The best thing that could’ve happened for me was that I didn’t start out at a legacy company. Everything I’ve done in my career, I’ve sort of built from the ground up with other people building something from the ground up.

Never get stuck in a certain way of doing things. Constantly leveling yourself up and evolving is really important, especially at the rate that the industry and technology is changing. It’s really important to never get too complacent in where you are and what you’re doing.

And always think bigger than you thought possible.  

Any predictions for where the industry is going?

I feel like everything is going to change in a year or two. There will likely be consolidation of all of these different OTT systems, winners and losers, who will survive and who won’t.

Every media company now is creating their own version of OTT. A lot of these publishing companies are now trying to turn into cable networks.

Every media company that existed ten years ago is trying to go into television or entertainment to some capacity and work with the Netflix’s and Amazon’s of the world, because those are going to be the controlling parties.

We as a company, our approach is to always be open to what’s next. We’re figuring out how do we work with these major players, how do we make the best content possible, while also maintaining control of our distribution and our destiny.

Thanks so much for joining us, Melissa! For more on how to build a diverse and robust content strategy ahead of 2019, check out our data-driven guide

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