Great Big Story Writes Next Chapter on Weather Channel, CNN

Brian Steinberg
Variety

Great Big Story, the social-video unit that was supposed to do for CNN what Vice has done for, well, itself, wants to extend its narrative.

When the company launched not-so-quietly in the fall of 2015, it was positioned as a means of getting CNN into a realm increasingly favored by a rising generation of millennial news aficionados: streaming-video vignettes passed from one person to another via mobile devices and social media. Did you see this video about the lady in Greece who paints new marquees by hand whenever the theater runs a new film? Check out this red-sided electus parrot!

But Great Big Story executives think they now see a broader business. “You will see us getting into television. You will see us getting into streaming services. And you will see international reach and growth that I think is going to be significant,” said Chris Berend, the company’s co-founder who is also CNN’s senior vice president of digital video.

Great Big Story’s changing tale is emblematic of the direction of the modern media business: There’s certainly interesting paths ahead, but most of them need to be cleared for smooth travel.  Vice, the upstart news outlet that aims for younger consumers, recently launched a cable-TV outlet it jointly owns with A+E TV Networks. NBCUniversal has invested heavily in both Vox Media and BuzzFeed, and has in recent weeks unveiled initiatives to sell ad inventory in both BuzzFeed and Apple’s Apple News.  CBS Corp. is pursuing a stand-alone video-on-demand service called “All Access” that makes its current and past offerings available to people on the go.

The hope is that Great Big Story will grow as more consumers consider the mobile screen their home one, and as the quality of streaming-video programming rises. Berend predicted the company would reach break-even status sometime in 2017. I think we are long past the days in which everything was just web video with a lower case ‘w’,” said Berend. He wants to keep the company’s options open by functioning as a potential supplier of content for an array of media outlets, he said, rather than building a bigger presence with a stand-alone TV network. “I think it still remains to be seen whether you can grab millennial eyeballs and get them to watch television in the way some are hoping. I think the jury’s still out. That’s a difficult thing to do.”

That doesn’t mean the company isn’t interested in TV. The next chapter for Great Big Story is television, Berend said. “That’s Amazing,” an eight-episode series that looks at interesting stories about the elements, is set to launch next month on Weather Channel. “They reached out to us,” he said. “We quickly got to the root of what we felt like was a really good concept.” Weather Channel executives were impressed by the short films they saw online, and thought GBS could produce something of interest to aficionados of natural phenomena, said Nora Zimmett, the network’s senior vice president of programing. “The quality of the storytelling and the beauty of the video is enough to keep the audience.”

Berend, who in an earlier part of his career held editorial positions at Esquire magazine, believes Great Big Story has developed a reputation for solid short-storytelling about interesting figures and phenomena, with miniature-length video takes that are clearly inspired by the cinematography used in films directed by Wes Anderson. The unit’s short films, which run the gamut from an examination of best friends in China who want to plant 50,000 trees in deforested parts of that country to a brief profile of female “slackliner” Faith Dickey to a truncated history of air fresheners “are just not predictable – in a good way,” he said. “Tell me something I never knew. Show me something I’ve never seen. A story doesn’t get through unless it meets that criteria.”

Great Big Story will also begin to show up periodically on the flagship network of its corporate parent. CNN will show 12 short films by Great Big Story. The run of documentaries, called “Really Great Big Stories,” started with the recent airing of “The Last Steps,” a 20-minute documentary by director Todd Douglas Miller that taps archival footage to explore the 1972 Apollo 17 moon landing – the last time humans took an actual step on a world other than Earth. “Hard Ship,” set to air December 1, examines a challenging boat race to Alaska.

And then there is discussion of what Berend calls a “Great Big Story” variety program that is being prepared for one of the networks within Time Warner’s Turner family – but not necessarily CNN. “It’s very much an off speed pitch for a lot of different places,” said the executive. “We are doing a dozen stories every week. We have more than 600 stories already in our library and virtually none of them expire. This opens up a possibility to create a unique type of program that can last a long time,” he said. He would not comment on which Turner network – Adult Swim? TBS? HLN? – is being considered for the program.

In the year ahead, executives want to attempt to make sure the company’s videos are seen beyond the usual places. “We are expanding just your Facebook page or browsing on YouTube,” said Berend, by pushing distribution in venues like Roku or Apple TV. There is also talk of opening offices in foreign countries.

“This is not an experiment or a vanity project,” said Berend. Great Big Story’s next chapter may not necessarily be found in the videos housed on its own site.

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