BuzzFeed wants to make the next TV hit — but advertisers are skeptical

BuzzFeed wants to translate its success in making popular viral video into creating the next hit TV show or movie.

But so far, advertisers harbor doubts about whether the publisher can evolve its video offerings beyond one-off pieces of content. Like other digital publishers, BuzzFeed’s long-term success depends on revenue sources outside of advertising, and advertisers’ doubts about BuzzFeed’s content play could hint at future challenges in securing big licensing and content deals.

Last week BuzzFeed hired Lauren Dolgen, a former MTV vet and head of West Coast development for Vice’s cable network Viceland. Dolgen will head up BuzzFeed Studios, the arm of the digital publisher focused on original productions across TV, film and streaming services.

Landing a seasoned TV programming executive is the latest signal that BuzzFeed wants a piece of traditional media and is aggressively building out resources to move into licensing and content development with cable networks and film studios.

For example, BuzzFeed is working with Oxygen on its first linear series with a true crime show that premiers later this year as part of its partnership with NBCUniversal. The show got a shoutout at NBCU’s upfront presentations to advertisers earlier this week.

The digital publisher is also reportedly pitching cable networks on a nightly news show as an extension of the daily news program “AM to DM” on Twitter and signed a deal with Netflix to create a short-form documentary.

The rationale for this is clear: Despite all of the growth in digital advertising in recent years (eMarketer predicts US digital spending to bring in $107.3 billion this year) there’s untapped opportunity within TV spend, which eMarketer says will be a $69.8 billion US market.

But according to interviews with five ad agencies, marketers aren’t sure if they’re willing to invest in BuzzFeed’s long-term content plan that relies heavily on TV networks and film studios.

Addictive social content

With 12 years of experience in creating addictive digital content, BuzzFeed hopes it can make content that brings studios and networks young and social audiences. Long-form content also opens up a new bucket of revenue for BuzzFeed in licensing its content.

Buzzfeed pioneered the native-advertising format, driving millions of readers toward its signature posts, quizzes, and videos that are produced as paid advertising. It was historically resistant to banner ads, only ditching its anti-banner ad stance in August last year.

But according to ad execs, they are not yet sold on the idea that BuzzFeed can turn its viral social videos into appointment viewing in different formats. Instead of investing in multiple, ongoing campaigns, advertisers typically sponsor single videos for one-off campaigns, according to ad execs.

That doesn’t bode well for Buzzfeed’s move into long-form media because bigger projects will require bigger funding. Advertisers know that BuzzFeed’s ads reach millions of digital eyeballs but it’s unclear if the company can parlay that expertise into striking the bigger deals with networks and studios that it will need.

“For the moment, it’s more of a one-off,” said Shannon Pruitt, chief content officer at Carat. “A lot of these partnerships are not based on long-term deals, they’re based on a flight of media.”

Moving beyond branded content

Big digital media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice have long wanted to get into TV to prove to advertisers that their content has long-lasting potential.

“TV can make an advertiser feel really big and meaningful,” said Lauren Tetuan, executive vice president and director of media at Deutsch Los Angeles. “There seems to be this shift from digital publishers who have maxed out in the digital space and are looking for a role in traditional media.”

However, Tetuan said that she’s not bullish on media companies moving into TV in general, partly because of a rise in cord-cutting. “I’d be wary of looking for too many big deals with cable networks with skinny bundles becoming more and more prevalent,” she said.

BuzzFeed wants to move beyond digital media.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorship at Wavemaker, said that the combination of Dolgen’s hire and BuzzFeed’s move into non-digital programming shows a “change in landscape” for digital publishers. Instead of inking production deals for big movies and shows, he expects for BuzzFeed to cut more partnerships like the deal with NBCUniversal that plugs BuzzFeed’s content into platforms with scale rather than creating a hit piece of original content.

BuzzFeed’s pitch to advertisers right now “is trying to wrap it all together,” he said. That includes branded content, standard ad units, massive digital distribution and understanding how algorithms on social platforms work. “The challenge is that not everyone is looking for the full package—they’re looking for parts of it,” he said.

Carat’s Pruitt questioned whether BuzzFeed’s content can last for multiple seasons like a TV show requires, asking how many of the “cultural moments that BuzzFeed does so well” have a longer-tail.

Like other digital publishers, BuzzFeed was hit by Facebook’s recent algorithm switch and has to prove to advertisers that it has a long-term, reliable strategy that can “get themselves off platform,” she said.

That said, Pruitt believes that Dolgen’s track record of turning MTV shows like “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” into long-term franchises indicates that she may be able to do the same with BuzzFeed by finding “things that are most beloved within their network.”

For example, Tasty has spun out into a separate brand under BuzzFeed to focus specifically on lifestyle content.

Despite the challenge ahead, Sean Mahoney, VP and group content director at Digitas, said that the move shows how BuzzFeed is nimble enough to continuously innovate and try new things.

“BuzzFeed is a company that works in sprints [with] a startup mentality—that’s something that legacy media groups can’t do,” he said.

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