“Half of our business model is built around formats that are already successful on Twitch and YouTube,” said VENN co-founder, Ariel Horn to The Washington Post. "[We’re] going in, taking that format, elevating it, giving [creators] production resources, curating it onto our network in a formatted window, and making it into a TV format.”
“The creators have prebuilt install bases on the digital platforms. That’s quantifiable. And we work with them. And we actually transfer their audience authentically to them by creating content with them,” said Horn, adding that the network and its hosts will cross-promote content and hosts will syndicate VENN content on their personal channels.
VENN is now available on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook Gaming, Twitter, and some smart TV platforms, including Vizio. Horn said they plan to pursue deals with traditional TV providers and other distributors, such as OTT platforms, but do not intend to charge any carriage fees, instead opting for an ad-supported, free to view business model.
Opening day on VENN’s show “The Download” revealed a professional-looking production, with smooth cutaways, multiple camera angles, and clean graphics. Topics of discussion were as broad as promised, including a $1 million donation from HBO to Howard University, NFL player George Kittle’s new Halo tattoo, and Avatar: The Last Airbender artwork.
Twitter views were low on day one, with concurrent viewership dropping into the double digits later in the day. On Twitch, concurrents ranged in the thousands, at times beating well-known streamers like Ali “SypherPK” Hassan and Matthew “Haag” Nadeshot, but far below Nick “NICKMERCS” Kolcheff who was at approximately 67,000 viewers around noon Pacific time.
The following show, Guest House, featured a more traditional streamer aesthetic. It embraced maybe too much authenticity, though, when it suffered from technical glitches early on. Sound cut out at times. With Guest House, VENN was able to show off contrast in tone and format, while maintaining a consistent brand identity with their slate of consistent, bright colors.
Horn, 44, a four-time Emmy Award winner, started his career with NBC Sports and then moved to Riot Games, where he helped pioneer that company’s foray into broadcasting its League of Legends esports competitions. With this venture, Horn and his company believe there is another opportunity to cater to an underserved, very populous demographic: namely, people who are into video games, which for years have also been a part of mainstream pop culture.
This is one of the reasons, along with the production resources, a social media influencer and jewelry entrepreneur named Emily Mei — known as Emily Ghoul on Instagram, where she has almost half a million followers — saw hosting a show on VENN as a worthwhile career move.
“There’s not really one way to define video game culture,” she said. “Now, there’s a lot of crossovers, with anime, KPop, esports, but not a lot of this kind of content crossover,” she said, referring to her show which seeks to bring these elements together. “It’s a chance to teach everyone about everything” Mei said, adding that topics such as Japanese snacks will also be fair game. “The stage is dope, I don’t have that in my home.”
In addition to Mei’s ensemble variety show, which also features LCS host James “Dash” Patterson, other shows on VENN include a kind of updated version of Loveline which will star former adult film actress Sasha Grey, an upgraded streaming show, a competition show, a fitness show, a news and talk show, and a 1-man show starring content creator Stefan “SushiDragon” Li. VENN programing will also have interactive elements as well, in a nod to the culture that has been bred on Twitch.
It will not air esports matches for the time being, Horn said, since, “the unit economics of esports are a challenge for us. We’re not going to bid against the titans of the industry for the exclusive broadcast rights.”
VENN’s shows will be shot on a single soundstage, which consists of four modular sets with massive LED panels, measuring 1,000 square feet, and which also extend to the ground. Some hosts will be in-studio while others will be hosting remotely. Before the pandemic, the company had also planned to shoot from its New York City studio in 3 World Trade Center, and maintains plans to do so.
According to Horn and Viranda Tantula, VENN’s creative director, the diverse, inclusive array of topics covered in their lineup is meant to broaden the potential audience while also expanding the public’s view of what constitutes gaming culture in this moment.
“Actually tied into our mission at VENN is destigmatizing and destroying monoculture around gaming,” Tantula said. “That’s something I’m really passionate about.”
VENN had a small social media following prelaunch, with 2,800 followers on Twitch, 10,800 on Twitter, and just over 4,000 on YouTube. It is also launching without any A-list streamers, such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Still, industry analysts and Hollywood executives are taking VENN seriously due to its potential to tap into a huge audience base, the current proliferation of outlets and ways to watch and the successful track record of its executives.
“The biggest fallacy in Hollywood is that there are rules, that there are things you can do and things you can’t do,” said Ben Rosenblatt, executive producer of TNT shows “Snowpiercer” and “The Alienist.” “I think everything could be tried. It creates an environment when the best content rises to the top. One need only look at ‘Fortnite’ to see that traditional models of what content can be evolve in the blink of an eye. … I’m not sure if its gonna work or not but, in general, anything can be television at this point. My take on the whole thing is the more the merrier and it will be survival of the fittest. I welcome them to the game.”
Andrew Uerkwitz, a managing director at Oppenheimer who focuses on emerging technologies, believes the success of VENN will ultimately come down to whether consumers want professional quality and production or prefer the “bedroom”-type setup.
“The fastest-growing audience is for video game or pop culture-related content. YouTube and Twitch have done a really good job of capturing that, traditional and linear TV, less so,” Uerkwitz said. “That audience has always been extremely difficult to crack.”
VENN is not the first network to focus on video games — G4 launched in 2002 and aired in various iterations until 2013 — but Uerkwitz thinks VENN has a better shot at success now that gaming has matured and its audience has grown, and because of their production value. G4 recently announced a relaunch, slated for next year. A spokesperson for the company said it will not be exclusive to linear cable. The VENN launch and the G4 relaunch have both received mostly cautious support — hopeful but not too hopeful — from esports personalities.
From a business standpoint, VENN is following a similar path as Cheddar, initially a business news-focused channel that started streaming in 2016 and was acquired by Altice USA in 2019.
“Following in Cheddar’s footsteps makes a lot of sense,” said Uerkwitz. “The advertising piece is interesting because, if you go to the streaming platforms, the number of viewers is greater than the number of subscribers, so people are willing to watch ads.”
“It’s tough to handicap, but there’s no other time I’d want to launch than now. There’s a lot of tail winds,” he said of the current pandemic conditions, noting students shifting from schools to remote learning and the cancellation of extracurricular activities could bolster audience potential. On the supply side, the climate appears favorable as well with the production of new TV shows hindered and an uncertain outlook for live sports.
VENN is financed by a $17 million seed round that included money from industry notables such as Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Blizzard Entertainment co-founder Mike Morhaime, and aXiomatic Gaming, which owns the esports franchise Team Liquid and has a stake in Epic Games.
Horn believes these votes of confidence, and the team he has assembled will also allay fears from advertisers who are trying to enter the gaming space but might be gun-shy about plopping substantial amounts of cash on an individual young streamer. Until now, such concerns have been dealt with by engaging with an esports organization.
“We have a much more sophisticated team that understands how to work with those brands,” Horn said.
Another issue that VENN faces is how to set acceptable standards of behavior. In recent weeks, several prominent streamers have been booted off platforms, for violations enumerated and not. Horn said that VENN’s policies for its streamers are based on “respect for human rights. We have very, very simple guidelines.”
Pressed on if hosts would be allowed, for example to discuss the Hong Kong-China dispute, an issue for which Activison Blizzard’s decisions have drawn sharp criticism, Horn said, “We are in support of human rights and we can have unfiltered discussions.”
For streamers and hosts, he thinks VENN provides more stability and more transparent agreements, compared to the current platforms.
Amid all the network’s big plans, Horn let slip perhaps his most challenging aspiration for VENN, one that has largely bested multibillion-dollar funded streaming platforms.
“I absolutely would love nothing more than to be able to contribute in some small way to making gaming a little less toxic,” he said.